Inside an anti-vaccine group, reading posts that wait to be taken down by Facebook

‘Vaccines are the disease pretending to be a cure,’ claims the cover image of a private Facebook group ‘Vaccines Your Right to know’ touting a quote and picture of one Dr Gregory A Poland, MD.

“The apparent paradox is that as measles immunisation rates rise to high levels in a population, measles becomes a disease of immunized persons,” says the quote attributed to him.

The quote is genuine, so is Dr Poland. What is missing is the context: a part of the prestigious Mayo Clinic and editor-in-chief of the journal Vaccine, Dr Poland’s quote comes from a 1994 paper on “failure to reach the goal of measles elimination and the apparent paradox of measles infections in immunized persons”. It adds that “the currently available measles vaccine, used in a single-dose strategy, is unlikely to completely eliminate measles.”

But that second part is unlikely to find mention on many of the anti-vaccine discussions one might find on Facebook.
While such posts might not make its way to your timeline, the fact remains that these are still live on Facebook and there are enough people who are trying to seek out such content. Some 2,800 of them, mostly from India, have joined ‘Vaccines Your right to know’, a private group meant for “those who think they have the freedom to choose to vaccinate themselves and their kids and would like to equip themselves with the knowledge to do so.”

When you are let into the group on request, it does ask why you want to join as well as your views on vaccination. Interestingly, on the group page, Facebook’s notice warning about coronavirus misinformation, directing to their news hub of authenticated information, appears right on top.

With vaccinations slowly picking up pace across the world, the discussions on such Facebook groups are dominated by the pandemic and vaccines. Facebook or its independent third-party fact-checkers cannot fact-check content shared on private groups. The fact-check label might appear on posts that are public, but those are rare. However, over time some posts did end up being fact-checked as false, like one that claimed Bill Gates did not vaccinate his children. Another older post now labeled false is a link to an article that claimed CDC had removed the headline that ‘Vaccines do not cause autism’ — one of the hot topics, but with no scientific evidence.

Facebook doesn’t take down all false articles and relies on third-party fact-checkers to call out misinformation. “We will continue to remove misinformation about Covid-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm and direct people to our COVID information Center,” a Facebook spokesperson told indianexpress.com. “In December 2020, we began removing false claims about Covid-19 vaccines and will regularly update the claims we remove over the coming months. For content we don’t remove, we work with independent fact-checkers to place warning labels to help people make more informed choices about what they read and share,” the spokesperson added.

It has also said that any “false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients, or side effects of the vaccines,” will be removed, but some of these are clearly still being shared on the platform. Conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines, like those claiming that “specific populations are being used without their consent to test the vaccine’s safety”, will also be removed. But it is clear Facebook will need some more time as it tries to implement its policy around fake news on Covid-19 vaccines.

Recent activity on the group is mostly around adverse reactions to the vaccines — some genuine news reports, others just social media chatter without any verification. Some of these questionable posts, which made their way to the group, are publicly shared posted and have hundreds, at times thousands, of shares and comments on their original links.

A lot of those posts are from influencers like Marcella Piper-Terry — her Facebook profile describes her as ‘Master of Science (MS), Nationally recognized for excellence in research and Compelled to tell the truth” — whose posts have amplified reach despite their questionable nature.

Another post on the group talks about is a screenshot from a spreadsheet titled ‘VAERS DEATH’. This post is labeled as ‘Missing Context’, and when you click on it, the notification explains that “independent fact-checkers say this information is missing context and could mislead people.” VAERS stands for Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, where in the US, the Centre of Disease Control (CDC) allows people to report any adverse events related to a vaccine. Interestingly there were two posts making false claims around the use of vaccines and linking them to COVID deaths on the island of Gibraltar, but only one was marked as such.

But members of the group claim Facebook is already cracking the whip hard. One of them, Chidambaram Subramaniam, said: “They tend to be against discussions critical of vaccines.” Their content is “blocked, censored, sometimes ‘fact-checked’ superimposed”, he said over Messenger chat, adding: “These so-called fact checks show up when others see some posts and end up simply enforcing an official viewpoint.”

In a separate email thread, Subramaniam clarifies that he is not opposed to vaccinations as a whole. “I am not opposed to the concept of vaccinations. I think that people should be able to evaluate which vaccines they need, understand how the vaccines work, if at all, and then have the choice of deciding which vaccine to take, and which to avoid,” he wrote.

In India, vaccines are now being administered to frontline workers. The next phase will be limited to those who register and will hence be voluntary.

To prove that Facebook is censoring content, Subramaniam cites the example of Del Bigtree, the American CEO of the anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network, whose page was recently taken down. His YouTube channel was also removed.

Subramaniam claims he was also banned for 24 hours from posting anything on Facebook and explains this is why a lot of the discussion has moved to other platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram. “Whatsapp is better for now, but it is a matter of time before things could get blocked there,” he adds.

Subramaniam says he will consider a vaccine that is demonstrated to be safe and effective in preventing Covid-19. “But at this point of time, I do not see any reason to take a Covid vaccine.” Claiming he has been “tracking vaccines for 20 years now”, Subramaniam adds: “I was and am pretty skeptical of vaccine approvals, not just in India.”

His grouse with Facebook is that “any opinion that runs contrary to the official train of thought is termed misinformation”. He signs off: “After some time, people will stop taking these labels seriously.”

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