Labor MP Julian Hill lashes out at Greg Hunt for ‘lack of a national public health campaign to combat misinformation’ after his vaccine photo on Facebook receives ‘batshit crazy’ responses
Australia’s drug regulator is considering referring Covid vaccine misinformation posts to the federal police, after anti-vaccine campaigners targeted a Labor MP who posted about getting the jab.
In response to a viral post of Labor backbencher Julian Hill receiving his vaccine, numerous users posted false material purportedly from the Therapeutic Goods Administration wrongly claiming Covid-19 vaccines have caused more than 200 deaths.
The figure they used was in fact the number of people who have died after receiving the vaccine, but apart from one case, none have been linked by the TGA to the vaccine.
The TGA told Guardian Australia the alleged posting of the death counter was “particularly concerning” and it would consider referring it to the federal police.
After being contacted by Guardian Australia, Facebook removed the material on Tuesday. A Facebook company spokesperson said its position on vaccine information “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”.
“We’ve removed more than 18m pieces of harmful Covid-19 vaccine misinformation and added warning labels to more than 167m pieces of additional Covid-19 content.”
Hill, who holds the outer Melbourne suburban seat of Bruce, has complained to the health minister, Greg Hunt, that the “serious misinformation” is spreading online “in the absence of a proper national public health campaign to combat misinformation”.
Hill posted a photo of himself being vaccinated on Saturday, reaching 500,000 users, and garnering 23,000 comments, 298 shares and more than 13,000 reactions.
According to the Auspol Posts Twitter account, which uses public data collated with online tool CrowdTangle, the photo had the most engagement of any Australian politician’s post on Facebook on 29 May.
In addition to replies wishing him well and expressing support for vaccination, many responded with an image citing the TGA’s weekly vaccine safety report for the incorrect claim there had been 210 “Covid-19 vaccine deaths” from 1 January to 23 May without mentioning most of these deaths were not caused by the vaccine.
“Apart from the single Australian case in which death was linked to [blood clots], Covid-19 vaccines have not been found to cause death,” the TGA safety report said.
More than three-quarters of the 210 deaths were in those aged over 75. “To date, the observed number of deaths reported after vaccination is actually less than the expected number of deaths,” it said.
The TGA said: “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 noted it is a criminal offence, punishable by two years in prison, to represent oneself as a commonwealth body or acting on behalf of one.
“The TGA will assess the information provided in the enquiry and refer the matter to the Australian federal police as an offence under the criminal code as appropriate.
“If evidence of a Facebook post is provided or found the TGA will also engage with Facebook.”
Several users also posted a letter from the TGA to a request for a document that provides “scientific factual evidence of the testing procedure being used in Australia that 100% positively identifies Covid-19 … in a living human, beyond any reasonable doubt”.
The letter states that no such documents exist, although point-of-care test kits for identifying Covid-19 were approved by the TGA.
Hill told Hunt he was “especially concerned about the large number of people purporting to share official information from the Australian government”.
“The lack of a national public health campaign to combat misinformation is extremely concerning.
“When the national government vacates the field, it leaves room for misinformation and conspiracy theories to flourish, especially online.”
Hill called for a “proactive effort to crowd out and call out the frankly batshit crazy stuff that is being spread”.
“Australians will continue to be exposed to restrictions and lockdowns … until enough of the population is fully vaccinated.”
In February, more than one-fifth of Australians said they “probably” or “definitely” won’t be vaccinated against coronavirus, with more recent polling putting the figure at one third, leading to concerns Australia will struggle to achieve herd immunity.
The federal government has set up a “myth-busting unit” to address what Hunt has called “plainly ridiculous” misinformation surrounding the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in Australia.
Hunt’s spokesman referred Guardian Australia to the “Is it true?” section of the health department’s website, and noted that Hill himself had provided links to it to debunk claims made about his vaccination photograph.
“As always, we suggest Australians get medical advice from medical experts, not Facebook,” he said.
The national Covid-19 vaccines campaign budget has a total budget of $40m over two years. Hunt’s spokesman cited ads running in all media since May, many containing “leading medical authorities” such as the TGA’s professor John Skerritt, chief nurse Alison McMillan and former deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth.
The government is planning a major advertising push to begin in July, to run on social media and traditional media, which is set to include celebrities, jokes and songs to entice younger Australians to get a jab.
The government has struggled with misinformation since newly independent MP Craig Kelly spruiked unproven Covid treatments while still a Liberal member of the government. Scott Morrison eventually distanced himself from Kelly’s comments after weeks of simply advising Australians not to get information from social media.
Kelly’s claims saw his popularity on Facebook soar, before the social media giant stepped in and deleted his page.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Facebook had come under fire for refusing to take down fake news about the “death tax” circulating during the May 2019 election.
Hill told Guardian Australia he hadn’t reported the issue of his vaccination photo to Facebook as he feared it would be “self-defeating” and result in the original photo being deleted, despite the fact it has “served a positive purpose in that numerous people have messaged seeking proper information and help”.
“I have reported or blocked some of the comments which hopefully Facebook will deal with, but it’s impossible to deal with a deluge of 14,000+ comments.”