LONDON/NEW YORK – Since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus an international health emergency in January, Facebook Inc. has removed more than 7 million pieces of content with false claims about the virus that could pose an immediate health risk to people who believe them.
The social media giant, which has long been under fire from lawmakers over how it handles misinformation on its platforms, said it had in recent months banned such claims as “social distancing does not work” because they pose a risk of “imminent” harm. Under these rules, Facebook took down a video post on Wednesday by U.S. President Donald Trump in which he claimed that children are “almost immune” to COVID-19.
But in most instances, Facebook does not remove misinformation about the new COVID-19 vaccines that are still under development, according to the company’s vaccine policy lead Jason Hirsch, on the grounds that such claims do not meet its imminent harm threshold. Hirsch said the company is “grappling” with the dilemma of how to police claims about new vaccines that are as yet unproven.
“There’s a ceiling to how much we can do until the facts on the ground become more concrete,” Hirsch said, talking publicly for the first time about how the company is trying to approach the coronavirus vaccine issue.
Tom Phillips, editor at one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners Full Fact, sees the conundrum this way: “How do you fact check about a vaccine that does not exist yet?”
For now, misinformation ranging from unfounded claims to complex conspiracy theories about the developmental vaccines is proliferating on a platform with more than 2.6 billion monthly active users, a review of posts by Reuters, Facebook fact-checkers and other researchers found.
The worry, public health experts said, is that the spread of misinformation on social media could discourage people from eventually taking the vaccine, seen as the best chance to stem a pandemic that has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands worldwide, including 158,000 people in the United States alone.
At the same time, free speech advocates fret about increased censorship during a time of uncertainty and the lasting repercussions long after the virus is tamed.
Drawing the line between true and false is also more complex for the new COVID-19 vaccines, fact-checkers said, than with content about vaccines with an established safety record.
Facebook representatives said the company has been consulting with about 50 experts in public health, vaccines, and free expression on how to shape its response to claims about the new COVID-19 vaccines.
Even though the first vaccines aren’t expected to go to market for months, polls show that many Americans are already concerned about taking a new COVID-19 vaccine, which is being developed at a record pace. Some 28 percent of Americans say they are not interested in getting the vaccine, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted between July 15-21. Among them, more than 50 percent said they were nervous about the speed of development. More than a third said they did not trust the people behind the vaccine’s development.
The U.K.-based nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate reported in July that anti-vaccination content is flourishing on social media sites. Facebook groups and pages accounted for more than half of the total anti-vaccine following across all the social media platforms studied by the CCDH.
One public Facebook group called “REFUSE CORONA V@X AND SCREW BILL GATES,” referring to the billionaire whose foundation is helping to fund the development of vaccines, was started in April by Michael Schneider, a 42-year-old city contractor in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The group grew to 14,000 members in under four months. It was one of more than a dozen created in the last few months which were dedicated to opposing the COVID-19 vaccine and the idea that it might be mandated by governments, Reuters found.
Schneider said he is suspicious of the COVID-19 vaccine because he thinks it is being developed too fast to be safe. “I think a lot of people are freaking out,” he said.
Posts about the COVID-19 vaccine that have been labeled on Facebook as containing “false information” but not removed include one by Schneider linking to a YouTube video that claimed the COVID-19 vaccine will alter people’s DNA, and a post that claimed the vaccine would give people coronavirus.
Facebook said that these posts did not violate its policies related to imminent harm. “If we simply removed all conspiracy theories and hoaxes, they would exist elsewhere on the internet and broader social media ecosystem. This helps give more context when these hoaxes appear elsewhere,” a spokeswoman said.
Facebook does not label or remove posts or ads that express opposition to vaccines if they do not contain false claims. Hirsch said Facebook believes users should be able to express such personal views and that more aggressive censorship of anti-vaccine views could also push people hesitant about vaccines towards the anti-vaccine camp.
At the crux of Facebook’s decisions over what it removes are two considerations, Hirsch said. If a post is identified as containing simply false information, it will be labeled and Facebook can reduce its reach by limiting how many people will be shown the post. For example, it took this approach with the video Schneider posted suggesting the COVID-19 vaccine could alter people’s DNA.
If the false information is likely to cause imminent harm, then it will be removed altogether. Last month, under these rules, the company removed a video touting hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus cure — though only after it racked up millions of views.
In March 2019, Facebook said it would start reducing the rankings and search recommendations of groups and pages spreading misinformation about any vaccines. Facebook’s algorithms also lift up links to organizations like the WHO when people search for vaccine information on the platform.
Some public health experts want Facebook to lower their removal standards when considering false claims about the future COVID-19 vaccines. “I think there is a duty (by) platforms like that to ensure that they are removing anything that could lead to harm,” said Rupali Limaye, a social scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who has been in talks with Facebook. “Because it is such a deadly virus, I think it shouldn’t just have to be ‘imminent.’”
But Jacob Mchangama, the executive director of Copenhagen-based think tank Justitia who was consulted by Facebook about its vaccine approach, fears the fallout from mass deletions: “This may have long-term consequences for free speech when this virus is hopefully contained,” he said.
Misinformation about other vaccines has rarely met Facebook’s threshold for risking imminent harm.
However, in Pakistan last year, the company intervened to take down false claims about the polio vaccine drive that were leading to violence against health workers. In the Pacific island state of Samoa, Facebook deleted vaccine misinformation because the low vaccination rate was exacerbating a dangerous measles outbreak.
“With regard to vaccines, it’s not a theoretical line … we do try to determine when there is likely going to be imminent harm resulting from misinformation and we try to act in those situations,” Hirsch said.
To combat misinformation that doesn’t meet its removal criteria, Facebook pays outside fact-checkers — including a Reuters unit — who can rate posts as false and attach an explanation. The company has said that 95 percent of the time, people who saw fact-checkers’ warning labels did not click through to the content.
Still, the fact-checking program has been criticized by some researchers as an inadequate response to the amount and speed of viral misinformation on the platforms. Fact-checkers also do not rate politicians’ posts and they do not judge posts that are exclusively in private or hidden groups.
Determining what constitutes a false claim regarding the COVID-19 shot is much harder than fact-checking a claim about an established vaccine with a proven safety record, Facebook fact-checkers said.
“There is a lot of content that we see and we don’t even know what to do with it,” echoed Emmanuel Vincent, founder of Science Feedback, another Facebook fact-checking partner, who said the number of vaccines in development made it difficult to debunk claims about how a shot would work.
In a study published in May in the journal Nature, physicist Neil Johnson’s research group found that there were nearly three times as many active anti-vaccination groups on Facebook as pro-vaccination groups during a global measles outbreak from February to October 2019, and they were faster growing.
Since the study was published, anti-vaccine views and COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies have flourished on the platform, Johnson said, adding, “It’s kind of on steroids.”
Code Red for COVID-19: Ottawa's top doctor warns COVID status "close" to most severe level – CTV Edmonton
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb in Ottawa, the medical officer of health is on the verge of moving Ottawa’s COVID-10 overall status to the most severe warning level during the pandemic.
“We are close to ‘Red,'” said Dr. Vera Etches when asked during Wednesday’s Council meeting about the current COVID-19 status in Ottawa.
The medical officer of health also warned that Ottawa could introduce a “targeted approach” to new restrictions and closures if the COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
The Ottawa Public Health coloured coded system indicates the status of COVID-19 in Ottawa by “Green,” “Yellow,” “Orange” and “Red.” Ottawa is currently in the “Orange” status for COVID-19, one step below the most severe level of the COVID-19 status.
The “Orange” status signals decreasing spread and few outbreaks, some hospital capacity and some health care worker infections. A “Red” status means “increasing spread and outbreaks. Limited hospital capacity and many health care worker infections. Limited or no ability to isolate cases/quarantine”
“We’ve spoken about whether we’re ‘Red’ now. Why I have not moved us into red as a global assessment is because our hospitalizations have stayed stable. This is good news, right?” said Dr. Etches.
“So the people who are testing positive are younger on the whole, so we’re not seeing the more serious complications that lead to hospitalizations.”
Ottawa Public Health reported 65 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, the second highest one-day total of COVID-19 cases in September. On Tuesday, a record 93 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Ottawa.
Councillor Diane Deans asked Dr. Etches if it’s possible for Ottawa to avoid the Code “Red” status.
“I have a lot of confidence that the people of Ottawa can do this. We can turn the curve because we have done it before.”
“I don’t want to have to shut things down”: Dr. Etches
During Wednesday’s Council meeting, Councillor Mathieu Fleury asked Dr. Etches about the possibility of new closures and restrictions due to the rising number of cases. Dr. Etches said Ottawa Public Health would take a “targeted approach” to addressing possible sources of COVID-19.
“We will risk going into having to do more closures if we don’t turn the curve,” said Dr. Etches.
“I’m not interested in creating more economic damage. That harms our health as a population; we need to keep places open that are employing people. We’ll need to take a targeted approach if there is a type of business that’s causing more challenges.”
The medical officer of health said Ottawa Public Health is speaking with officials in cities seeing a large spike in new cases, including Toronto and Peel, about possible steps to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re all interested in a targeted approach to tackle where infections are spreading. For the most part, it’s really the social gatherings, in people’s homes.”
Last Thursday, Ontario announced new limits on social gatherings across the province. Indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people, while outdoor events can have 25 people.
“We need to then make sure that we’re adhering to the new provincial regulations of no more than 10 in a gathering, but really as few as possible. So your household and the people who are important to support you in your life. Whether they’re your grandparents or child care,” said Dr. Etches.
“I don’t want to have to shut things down.”
News Releases | COVID-19 Bulletin #198 – news.gov.mb.ca
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Parents, epidemiologists unsurprised by COVID cases in Sask. schools – CBC.ca
Eight cases of COVID-19 have now been identified in Saskatchewan schools — the latest was found earlier this week at Valley Manor Elementary School in Martensville, Sask.
However, a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, says this was to be expected as children returned to their classrooms this fall.
“I’m certainly not surprised,” said Dr. Cory Neudorf. “We’ve known right from the start that this pandemic tends to affect adults and older people more in terms of symptoms. And since a lot of the testing has been focused on people with symptoms and those wanting to go back to work, we haven’t had as much uptake in testing from children.
“Now that we’re doing a little more testing in that age group, we expect to be finding a certain number of positives, both in terms of those who may have had mild symptoms and those with no symptoms at all.”
Janine Muyres’ three children attend City Park School in Saskatoon. For her, the transition to distance learning last winter was “kind of like having labour — when you’re in it, it’s hell, and when you’re out, you think ,’Well, that wasn’t so bad.'”
When Muyres found out her children could go back to their classrooms this fall, she was relieved to know that distance learning was off the table, at least for now.
“I remember telling my coworkers, ‘I don’t care if the kids have to wear a HAZMAT suit, they’re going back to school,’ she said.
“I’d been hanging on all summer with my fingers crossed, thinking ‘It’s got to go back, because I can’t do that to my kids again. I can’t put them through that.’
“I was just so busy with work. I couldn’t watch over them and make sure their assignments were getting done.”
With cold and flu season on the horizon, as well as fall allergies to contend with, Neudorf urged parents to take their children for flu shots as soon as possible and exercise caution when sending them to school with any health symptoms in the months ahead.
“I can imagine it’s going to get very frustrating to have mild symptoms leading to multiple tests being done and disruptions to work and family life,” he said. “This is the short-term reality we’re in this year.
“In the meantime, we do what we can with physical distancing, mask wearing, washing hands, using sanitizer and limiting your close circle of who you’re interacting with.”
For Neudorf, a case of COVID-19 in a school community can be a sign for administrators and public health officials to review their existing policies and question what could be done differently going forward.
“Whenever we see cases in a school, that’s a chance to re-look and ask if there is anything we could have done differently in terms of screening, keeping kids home when they’re sick … and contact tracing,” he said.
“Every time there’s a case or a cluster, it’s time to look at that in the context of that school and say, is there anything we could be doing differently here? We’re essentially learning as we go.”
Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation, is concerned about how quickly teachers are being asked to change on a dime as the school year progresses.
“From what I’m hearing, lots of teachers are kind of hanging by a thread and hoping that they can get through day to day at this point,” he said. “It is an unprecedentedly stressful time.
“I have lots of members who have been told — this late into the month already — that they’re changing their positions, switching subjects or going to online learning. And we’re asking that teachers be patient and roll with the punches, but at some point, we get to the fact that it’s very difficult to change what you teach this late into September.”
Maze has commended school faculty and staff for their thorough implementation of COVID safety protocols, but believes large class sizes and after-school activities may still fuel in-school transmission.
“Whether it’s practices or different events in the community, it’s a bit frustrating, because I know that schools have put in a tremendous amount of work to cohort students … and do block scheduling,” he said. “And that will all come undone if we continue to try to run things as normal in the evenings, as far as clubs and activities and events. So we’re hoping that the community can also do its part in order to help us keep the measures that have been put in place in schools to keep everyone safe.”
As for Muyres, she is working on sending her children out the door in the morning with a realistic perspective on this unique school year.
“I tell my kids, we’re not going to live in fear,” she said.
“We’re not going to let this consume our life, and nobody’s going to develop anxiety over this. This is here, it’s happening right now, here’s what you can do to prevent it. And we’re just going to go ahead until otherwise directed by health officials.”
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