AI-generated celebrity endorsement videos on Facebook promote unproven cure for tinnitus

CLAIM
EchoEase nasal inhaler cures tinnitus
DETAILS
Inadequate support: There’s no evidence showing that EchoEase can cure tinnitus. There’s currently no known cure for tinnitus.
Factually inaccurate: Videos showing celebrities like Kevin Costner endorsing EchoEase aren’t genuine, but the product of AI modification.
KEY TAKE AWAY
People with tinnitus perceive sounds that don’t have an external source. Many of those affected by the condition commonly report ringing in the ears, while others may perceive different sounds like buzzing, hissing, and whistling. No cure for tinnitus exists at the moment, but various approaches, such as sound therapy devices and behavioral therapy, can help mitigate the impact of tinnitus.

FULL CLAIM: “LIFE-CHANGING:Harvard Research Institute Discovers a Mysterious Compound That Could Help You Eliminate Tinnitus in 28 Days”; “After two years of dedicated research, Harvard University has announced a groundbreaking discovery in the form of a new tinnitus Nasal Aspiration Treatment called EchoEase.”

REVIEW


A slew of Facebook ads appeared in May 2024 promoting a product called EchoEase (see examples here and here), a nasal inhaler supposedly able to cure tinnitus. Many of these ads featured a video of actor Kevin Costner (archived here) endorsing the product and directed users to a webpage on the domain bestically.com. The webpage displayed an article claiming “Harvard Research Institute Discovers a Mysterious Compound That Could Help You Eliminate Tinnitus in 28 Days”.

The page attributes this beneficial effect to a substance called SPI-1005, which it touted as “improv[ing] hearing and tinnitus symptoms by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in ear tissue”. Other supposedly beneficial ingredients listed on the webpage include ginkgo leaves and ginseng.

However, as the saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We explain more below.

No cure for tinnitus exists currently, but there are ways to reduce its impact on people’s lives

The U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) defines tinnitus as “the perception of sound that does not have an external source”. Many of those affected by the condition report “ringing in the ears”, but others may perceive sounds like buzzing, hissing, and whistling.

There’s some indication that tinnitus occurs as a result of altered neural activity. The NIDCD explains:

“One leading theory is that tinnitus can occur when damage to the inner ear changes the signal carried by nerves to the parts of your brain that process sound. A way to think about this is that while tinnitus may seem to occur in your ear, the phantom sounds are instead generated by your brain, in an area called the auditory cortex.

Other evidence shows that abnormal interactions between the auditory cortex and other neural circuits may play a role in tinnitus. The auditory cortex communicates with other parts of the brain, such as the parts that control attention and emotions, and studies have shown that some people with tinnitus have changes in these nonauditory brain regions.”

Neurotologist Douglas Backous told AFP that tinnitus isn’t a disease in itself, but rather a symptom of disease.

Indeed, tinnitus is typically a sign of a medical condition, such as hearing loss, ear infection, certain medications, certain tumors like vestibular schwannomas, and a hearing disorder called Ménière’s disease. Exposure to very loud sounds, such as at a concert or sporting event, can also lead to tinnitus. However, some cases of tinnitus can also develop without a known cause.

Contrary to EchoEase’s fundamental claim, there’s no cure for tinnitus. But there are various approaches to reduce its impact on people’s lives, such as sound therapy devices like hearing aids and behavioral therapies.

SPI-1005 is still being tested in clinical trials; the claim that it cures tinnitus is premature

The substance SPI-1005 is the name of an investigational new drug developed by Sound Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a Seattle-based pharmaceutical company. It’s also known under the name ebselen.

Some data from animals indicate that the activity of an enzyme called glutathione peroxidase diminishes with noise-induced hearing loss, and that ebselen can protect against hearing loss by mimicking the effect of glutathione peroxidase. Glutathione peroxidase protects cells from damage caused by reactive oxygen species, like free radicals.

We found at least two products bearing the name of EchoEase being sold online, but no evidence that the EchoEase product is produced by or related to Sound Pharmaceuticals. We reached out to Sound Pharmaceuticals for comment and will update this review if new information becomes available.

There’s some data suggesting that SPI-1005 could improve certain hearing-related problems. A study led by Sound Pharmaceuticals reported some benefit from orally administered SPI-1005 in people with noise-induced hearing loss. However, this study was small, with a little over 60 people receiving SPI-1005 and 20 receiving a placebo[1]. Phase 3 clinical trials testing the effect of SPI-1005 in people with Ménière’s disease are currently underway.

One caveat is that the data above isn’t necessarily generalizable to tinnitus. Both Ménière’s disease and hearing loss are indeed associated with tinnitus, but there are also many other causes of tinnitus. There currently isn’t enough data to determine whether SPI-1005 would produce a beneficial effect in people with other conditions.

Another caveat is that the data comes from people who took SPI-1005 orally, whereas EchoEase is administered as a nasal spray. We don’t know whether the nasal route of administration would produce the same therapeutic level (the level of drug needed to produce the beneficial effect) as oral administration. How a drug is absorbed and metabolized can vary greatly depending on the route of administration.

On a related note, none of the EchoEase products we found provided an ingredient list specifying the contents and in what quantities they were present. Whether the products contain sufficient quantities of SPI-1005 to produce a beneficial effect—or whether they contain SPI-1005 at all—remains unclear.

The Facebook ads and pages exhibit red flags typical of scams

A red flag exhibited by the ads is that the video of Kevin Costner endorsing EchoEase isn’t genuine, but the product of AI modification. A tip-off is the awkward, sometimes mismatched mouth movement in the video.

The original video of Costner comes from this interview on “LIVE With Kelly and Mark” from June 2020, in which Costner discussed the television series “Yellowstone” that he starred in. During the interview, he wears the same clothes as shown in the AI-modified video; the collars of his shirt and jumper are folded in the same way; the picture in the background is also identical to the one shown in the video of the Facebook ads.

Top: Screenshot of the interview on “LIVE With Kelly and Mark” from June 2020. Source: YouTube. Bottom: Screenshot of the Facebook video showing Costner endorsing EchoEase. Source: Facebook.

To find out who might be behind these ads, we looked at the Whois records for the domain bestically.com using DomainTools, which listed an address in Hanoi, Vietnam, as the location of the domain registrant.

Whois record for the domain bestically.com. Cau Giay is the name of a district in Hanoi, Vietnam. Source: DomainTools.

The Facebook pages that posted the ads appear to be representing genuine businesses in the U.S. What’s unusual is that their posting of EchoEase ads appear to be incongruent with their business. For example, we found a Facebook page for a dental practice posting these ads. This suggests that the pages might have been hacked, a feature observed in other Facebook scams. We observed similar activity behind Facebook ads promoting “keto gummies” for weight loss.

Cybercriminals and hackers based in Vietnam have been behind various deceptive Facebook ads and scams, as reported by BuzzFeed, Reuters, and Vox. It’s likely that these AI-generated Facebook ads promoting EchoEase to treat tinnitus are part of a scam like those seen in the past.

REFERENCES

Published on: 22 May 2024 | Editor:

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