During a seven-month period this year the Health Service Executive (HSE) has reported over 1,000 posts to social media companies for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all feature in the database with Twitter making up the majority of the reports. Although the companies have promised in recent months to do more to combat misinformation many of the accounts associated with the comments appear to remain online.
Amongst the accounts are a number of well-known Irish anti-vaccination and far-right activists.
Journalist Ken Foxe of The Story acquired the HSE database via a Freedom of Information (FoI) request and shared it with The Beacon. Covering the months of February to August of this year, it contains links to over 1,000 comments and posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The HSE reported them to the companies for spreading misinformation about COVID-19.
According to the database the HSE reported 739 posts on Twitter alone, with the HSE also reporting 291 Facebook posts and comments. March was the busiest month with the database showing the HSE reported a total of 440 across social media. A number of well-known accounts of anti-vaccination and far-right activists also showed up in the database, such as Ivor Cummins and Tracey O’Mahony.
But after The Beacon selected a random sample it appears that many of the comments and posts remain online.
A tweet Cummins wrote in July in which he described the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) as “Pharma-captured anti-scientific sociopaths” was still online at the time of writing. As was a tweet Eddie Hobbs posted where he questions the seriousness of the pandemic, writing it “has produced no excess deaths” compared to 2018.
On Facebook many of the comments and posts the HSE reported also appear to still be available. Included in this are comments calling COVID-19 vaccinations “Lethal injections” and claims that “They are all experiments”.
Abusing the platform
Both Facebook and Twitter have previously declared that they’d be stepping up work on combatting COVID-19 misinformation on their platforms. In March 2020 Facebook, which also owns Instagram, said in a press release it’d “been working to connect people to accurate information and taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading”.
But The Beacon has previously pointed to far-right activists continuing to use the platform to spread misinformation. In May Rowan Croft, aka Grand Torino, posted a video on his Facebook page in which he advocated for people to attack vaccination centres as well as calling for pro-vaccination politicians to be “hung by the neck”. Facebook eventually removed the video in question but his account remains online.
For its part Twitter only announced in August that it’d allow users to report tweets as “misleading”. Until that point the platform didn’t offer users an option to report tweets for spreading misinformation.
The Beacon contacted both Facebook and Twitter in relation to the HSE reports database.
Facebook’s spokesperson told us they’re “unable to comment” as they’ve not seen the HSE reports database. But that “It may be the case that the accounts and posts you reference don’t break our rules”.
Answering our query a spokesperson for Twitter said the company has been “working closely with public health authorities around the world, including the HSE, to take enforcement action on content that violates our COVID-19 misleading information policy”. It’s also taken steps to “elevate credible, reliable health information” and that it’s “challenged 11.7 million accounts” as well as suspending a further 1,496 for breaching its policies on misleading information.
Twitter’s spokesperson also told The Beacon “We prioritise the removal of content that could potentially cause real-world harm” and label tweets for containing “misleading information”.
This article was updated on 28 September to include a response from a Facebook spokesperson.
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