Facebook posts promoting fake vaccine theories could be referred to police, the TGA says

Australia's medicines regulator said it is considering referring social media material to the Australian Federal Police over concerns it could be in breach of the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act.

People are seen lining up outside of COVID-19 vaccination centre in Melbourne on 1 June 2021.

People are seen lining up outside of COVID-19 vaccination centre in Melbourne on 1 June 2021. Source: AAP

The Therapeutic Goods Administration says it may refer COVID-19 vaccine misinformation posted on social media to the Australian Federal Police. 

Comments posted below Labor MP Julian Hill's post on Facebook inaccurately claim the COVID-19 vaccines has caused 210 deaths, citing the TGA's weekly vaccine safety report from 27 May. 


The actual TGA report said: "Apart from the single Australian case in which death was linked to TTS [Thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome or blood clots], COVID-19 vaccines have not been found to cause death." 

In a statement, the TGA said social media posts appearing to be from official government health sources and promoting misinformation are "particularly concerning". 

The body said such actions could be a criminal offence, attracting a maximum penalty of two years in jail, and it was considering referring the matter to the AFP.  

"The alleged posting particularly of the false information of the death counter from ‘COVID-19 vaccines’ with the Department’s and TGA’s apparent endorsement is particularly concerning," the TGA said in a statement.

"The risk of such misinformation, in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, poses an unacceptable threat to Australians."

'Downright dangerous and crazy stuff'

Labor MP Julian Hill said after months of posting messages on his page encouraging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, even he was taken aback by the comments to a of him receiving his first coronavirus vaccine dose. 

"There has been over 25,000 comments, many of them incredibly worrying, downright dangerous and crazy stuff. Many of them with the Commonwealth logo on pretending to be official information.

"We need to make sure they're [Australians are] getting proper information from credible sources - be that the Health Department or their doctor. Not believing stuff that is fake but actually looks real," he said.

"That is the real concern. That people who are cautious and who are trying to work out what is right for them may actually believe this crazy stuff, which is being spread, which looks official." 

Labor MP Julian Hill has written a letter to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt requesting the urgent implementation of a campaign to counter misinformation.
Labor MP Julian Hill has written a letter to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt requesting the urgent implementation of a campaign to counter misinformation. Source: AAP

An using social monitoring platform CrowdTangle found that Mr Hill's post had the most engagement on Facebook "than any other politician's post on May 29". 

In a letter to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, he urged the federal government to urgently implement a proactive communications campaign to counter vaccine hesitancy and misinformation. 

"The government has been way too slow, not just with the vaccine rollout, but with getting a proper public health campaign out there to educate people and provide proper information.

"They say they will ramp it up in July - that is way too late. Because with the government not active, it allows space for these crazy conspiracy theories to spread like wildfire."

Calls for social media campaign to counter vaccine hesitancy

UNSW health psychologist Kate Faasse is in the early stages of a research project looking at how to improve vaccine uptake. 

She said there is a need to counter the growing levels of vaccine hesitancy in the community. Up to a third of Australians surveyed recently said they were unlikely to be vaccinated against COVID-19 vaccine.

In particular, Dr Faasse said there is a need for positive messaging on the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines, and a simultaneous social media campaign to combat misinformation on social media based on its potential to spread conspiracy theories quickly and influence peer networks. 

"People have something called the availability heuristic. If there is information that we have seen a lot, we tend to assume that is something that occurs a lot.

"If we're seeing a lot of posts about [COVID-19 vaccine] side effects, we tend to assume a large proportion of people have side effects, which means we have an incomplete picture of the realities of most peoples' vaccine experiences.

People are seen lining up outside of COVID-19 vaccination centre in Melbourne on 1 June 2021.
People are seen lining up outside of COVID-19 vaccination centre in Melbourne on 1 June 2021. Source: AAP

Dr Faasse said her research on the so-called nocebo effect - when negative expectations produce adverse events - is relevant when talking about the rare side effect of blood clots. 

"These nocebo side effects can account for a large proportion, we think, of all side effects that people experience from medications, vaccinations.

"So making sure that people have a more accurate view of the likelihood of the side effects should be able to bring down that nocebo component - and hopefully make people feel about a little more confident about going to get the vaccination."

She said while a small minority would never shift their opposition to COVID-19 vaccines, the majority of those people in the vaccine hesitancy camp are open to potentially having their minds changed given the right information. 

"When talking about people being reluctant to get the vaccine, they will fall in the category of being a little bit hesitant, but not staunchly opposed to vaccines.

"So we're really talking about targeting those people in the middle who are a little worried, who need more reassurance, and who need more information to encourage them to go and get their COVID vaccine." 

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Health told SBS News it has developed a strategy to address misinformation relating to COVID-19 vaccines "where misconceptions are countered with solid, evidence-based facts delivered by authoritative health experts". 

"The department is working with key stakeholders within the health industry as well as across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and multicultural stakeholder networks, community leaders and members to help address concerns and hesitancy through local level engagement," they said in a statement on Wednesday. 

'Contextualising risk'

On Monday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that creative ad agency BMF had been engaged by the federal government to launch new advertisements to encourage those under the age of 40 to get vaccinated. 

The federal government updated its current $40 million dollar public information campaign two weeks ago to target those aged over 50 to get vaccinated at their GP or at a mass vaccination clinic. 

Dr Faasse said understanding how to communicate risk in an engaging way will be key to reducing levels of vaccine hesitancy. 

"It is all about contextualising risk and helping people think about the different risks we accept in our lives pretty readily.

"Risk is complicated: the risk from COVID, the risk from other things, the risk from the vaccine - and balancing all of those.

"And highlighting things like the evidence that suggests that about 1 in 10,000 women who are taking the contraceptive pill will also experience blood clots."

This compares to 1 in 250,000 people at risk of developing blood clots from AstraZeneca, based on a review of cases in the UK.

The expert group on immunisations in Australia, ATAGI, said the risk of blood clots is between one in 166,000 and one in 250,000. And the upon taking the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

More than 4.2 million COVID-19 doses have been administered since the vaccine rollout began on 22 February.

That number includes 500,000 Australians - or two per cent of the country's population - who are fully vaccinated with two doses of the vaccine.

Facebook said it had reviewed and removed certain comments from Mr Hill's Facebook photo post that violated the company's misinformation policy. 

Technicians prepare vaccines at the newly opened COVID-19 Vaccination Centre in Sydney on 10 May 2021.
Technicians prepare vaccines at the recently opened COVID-19 Vaccination Centre in Sydney. Source: AAP

"Facebook is an important platform for health bodies and governments to disseminate authoritative information to the public, and so far, we’ve directed more than 6.2 million Australians to this information through ourCOVID Information Centre," said a spokesperson for Facebook. 

"Our position on vaccine misinformation is clear — we remove false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines, including conspiracy theories, and continue to remove COVID-19 misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm."

The company said it had recently launched more options on the comment controls to restrict the audience members who can comment on posts - and was committed to actively removing misinformation on its platform.

"In fact, we’ve removed more than 18 million pieces of harmful COVID-19 misinformation and added warning labels to more than 167 million pieces of additional COVID-19 content."

8 min read
Published 2 June 2021 at 10:34am
By Biwa Kwan
Source: SBS News