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15 December 2020

Facebook has announced its plans to regulate and remove false claims about the new COVID-19 vaccine. Facebook has said it is accelerating it’s plans to ban misleading and false information on it’s Facebook and Instagram platforms following the approval of the vaccine in the United Kingdom. There have already been false claims about the vaccine ingredients, safety, effectiveness and side-effects. Since January of this year, Facebook has been removing false content about the COVID-19 pandemic, including false cures and treatments and claims that the disease doesn’t exist. In October, the company banned adverts that discouraged its users from taking the vaccine. This follows their policy “to remove misinformation about that virus that could lead to imminent physical harm”. Facebook said “this could include false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines [and] false claims that Covid-19 vaccines contain microchips, or anything else. That isn’t on the official vaccine ingredient list.” Furthermore they promised to remove conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines that are false.

Facebook has been criticised for what is seen as a patchy approach to tackling fake news, false claims and misleading content about Covid-19 which is widely available on their platforms. However, despite their new promise to tackle this issue this won’t be resolved quickly. “We will not be able to start enforcing these policies overnight”, a statement by Facebook said. CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Imran Ahmed, said: Today’s policy change is long overdue, but there is no guarantee it will be properly enforced. As we saw in the months following Facebook’s promise to remove misinformation about coronavirus earlier this year, they rarely enforce their own policies.” Mr Ahmed urged governments to accelerate their plans to regulate misinformation online stating: “They must introduce tough regulations as soon as possible to ensure these policies are enforced, including criminal sanctions for breaches of their duty to remove harmful material that puts lives at risk.” The UK government has plans for an Online Harms Bill to address this issue but has been criticised over its delays in its publication. Jo Steven’s, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, called for an emergency legislation to protect the public from dangerous misinformation.

But this issue isn’t just affecting the UK alone. During a virtual briefing to the UN Correspondents Association, Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies stated that governments and institutions needed to implement measures to combat growing mistrust and misinformation. He said: “To beat Covid-19, we also need to defeat the parallel pandemic of mistrust that has consistently hindered our collective response to this disease, and that could undermine our shared ability to vaccinate against it”. Whilst the organisation shares a “sense of relief and optimism” about the new vaccine, governments need to build trust within communities where misinformation has spread. Studies show that there is a growing hesitancy about vaccines across the world with a study by John Hopkins University in 67 countries found that acceptance of vaccinations had declined significantly between July and October this year. Rocca adds  "this high level of mistrust has been evident since the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and have clearly facilitated transmission of the virus at all levels." An example of a  consequence of this mistrust is the unwillingness of people to wear face masks in western countries. "This is not just an issue of mistrust. It is an issue of information," he said. "Surprising as it may seem, there are still communities around the world that are not aware of the pandemic." The communities he speaks of are usually vulnerable and marginalised, often living outside the “reach of communication channels” for example Pakistan, citing a federation survey that concluded 10% of participants didn’t know about Covid-19. Rocca further emphasises that “we believe that the massive coordinated effort that will be needed to roll out the Covid vaccine in an equitable manner, needs to be paralleled by equally massive efforts to proactively build and protect trust.”

Those taking part in dealing with this issue include YouTube, who are owned by Google, Twitter and the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; the Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism, Africa Check, Canada’s Privacy Council Office and five other international fact-checking organisations. They will have looked at stories suggesting various different situations including that the vaccine has serious-side effects or the hasn’t been properly tested. There’s even been speculation that Bill Gates is using it to microchip people and track them. Another challenge in tackling this issue will be getting social media giants, with different approaches to tackle the issue, to agree to a set of common rules. Full fact chief executive Will Moy said: "Bad information ruins lives, and we all have a responsibility to fight it where we see it. The coronavirus pandemic and the wave of false claims that followed demonstrated the need for a collective approach to this problem." He added with the new vaccine "bad information could undermine trust in medicine when it matters most, and ultimately prolong this pandemic".

Examples of false information surrounding Covid-19 have been spread across the world. For example, in Germany, two Twitter accounts claiming to be Prof. Ugur Sahin and Dr Özlem Tureci claimed that they would be able to supply the vaccine by the end of 2020 to early 2021. These claims were later found to be false as neither has a personal Twitter account. Prof. Ugur Sahin, a Turkish physician and oncologist working in Germany, and Dr Özlem Türeci, a German physician, and immunologist, who also has Turkish ancestry, are hailed as the inventors of the Covid vaccine. Despite the fact that accounts weren’t verified on Twitter, the accounts misinformation reached more than 50,000 followers. The tweets were liked and distributed thousands of times with users believeing the accounts to be real, despite there being no information or link to Twitter profiles on the BioNTech website. Just days before BioNTech had stated in a press release that the vaccine delivery depends on numerous factors and risks, including “whether and when the regulatory authorities give their approval.” Despite this Sahin’s fake accounts had 7,000 and 2,0000 followers respectively. It was found the accounts had been opened in August of this year under different names.

In Peru, there was misinformation stating that being vaccinated against Covid-19 was compulsory, and if anyone refused to receive the vaccine they would be arrested. The original claim, posted on Facebook, on 7th November said:

"In Peru, vaccination against COVID-19 is now compulsory and anyone who refuses to use it will be arrested, see pictures. It has begun, WAKE UP. Big concerns are coming, this is the beginning of the pain,". Attached was a photo of medical workers in protective clothing making house calls. However, these claims were found to have no basis as there wasn’t an approved available vaccine in that stage of the pandemic.

Another false claim that went viral on Twitter stated that the Pfizer vaccine uses mRNA technology which has never been tested nor approved. The tweet also claimed the vaccine altered your DNA and that 75% of trial participants experienced side effects. The tweet came from Emerald Robinson, a White House Correspondent who works at Newsmax Media. She published the tweet 10th November 2020, which has received over 3,000 likes from users. Whilst there is truth that there hasn’t been approved mRNA vaccine previously, there have been multiple studies of mRNA vaccines in humans. In the most simple terms the vaccine uses technology known as mRNA, containing small fragments of Covid-19’s genetic code to produce the virus in a human body, causing the immune system to produce anti-bodies against it. Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell University’s Alliance for Science group told the Reuters Institute: “Genetic modification would involve the deliberate insertion of foreign DNA into the nucleus of a human cell, and vaccines simply don’t do that.” Despite the claims being proven as false, with many users responding to Robinson’s tweet explaining that DNA can not be modified, the tweet is still available to see on her Twitter profile today.

To make matters worse, Russia has been spread claims that the Oxford University vaccine turns receivers into monkeys. It’s believed they’re targeting countries where they want to sell their own Putin-backed Sputnik V vaccine such as Brazil and India. The propaganda includes an image of King Kong wielding a syringe stating “Don’t worry, monkey vaccine is fine” and an image of a yeti like Boris Johnson walking into Downing Street saying: “I like my bigfoot vaccine.” The campaign has been featured on Vesti News, Russia’s version of Newsnight, who called the vaccine the “Monkey Vaccine” because it uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector. A vector is what allows the body to transport the genetic material from Covid-19 to cells allowing them access to information which will fight off the disease. Using a chimpanzee adenovirus-based vector is common and often successful in virus research. It doesn’t turn humans into monkeys. Professor Pollard, a professor of Paediatric Infection and Immunity at the University of Oxford said: "The type vaccine we have is very very similar to a number of other vaccines, including the Russian vaccine, all of which use the Common Cold virus from humans or from chimpanzees.”

One of the most extraordinary and unbelievable theories is that the covid-19 pandemic is a plan to cover for implanting trackable microchips lead by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Vaccine’s don’t contain microchips and there is no evidence supporting this theory. These rumours began to circulate when Bill Gates stated in an interview that eventually “we will have some digital certificates” which would be shown who’d recovered, been tested and who received a vaccine. Gates never mentioned microchips. However, it led to a widely shared article with the headline “Bill Gates will microchip implants to fight coronavirus.” The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation told the BBC the claim was “false”.

Dr Michael Head, from the University of Southampton addressed the issue of misinformation saying: “We’ve seen claims that vaccines contain the lung tissue of an aborted foetus. This is false. There are no foetal cells used in any vaccine production process.” This particular misinformation may have been caused because of a step in the process of developing a vaccine that uses cells grown in labs, which are the descendants of embryonic cells, which otherwise would’ve been destroyed but doesn’t use aborted foetuses. Oxford University later clarified that they worked with cloned cells, not the cells of aborted babies. The cells themselves act as a factory to produce a weakened version of the covid-19 virus that is adapted to use as a vaccine. The cellular material is later removed and not used in the vaccine.

These false claims have led to many social media users sharing a meme that states the recovery rate from the disease is 99.97% and therefore suggested catching Covid-19 is safer than taking the vaccine. However, this ‘recovery rate’ is false. 99% of people who catch the virus will survive. 100 in 10,000 people will pass away, rather than the suggested 3 in 10,000. However, survival depends on various factors and even if you do survive many end up suffering from long-lasting effects.

In order to test a vaccine and make sure its safe during the first and second phases in clinical trials, vaccines are tested in small numbers of volunteers too ensure their safety and determine the correct dose. During phase 3 in trials, the vaccine is tested in a sample of thousands of people to see how effective it is. A placebo is also given. These groups of people are monitored closely for any reactions and side effects, even after a vaccine is approved it is still closely monitored. The Covid-19 vaccine has been proven to be safe to those who take it and is the key to conquering this virus. The vaccine continues to be distributed as of December 2020.

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