Australia’s medicines regulatory authority plans to return messages of misinformation about Covid vaccines to federal police after anti-vaccine campaigners targeted a Labor MP who posted an article on getting the vaccine.
In response to a viral message from Labor MP Julian Hill receiving his vaccine, many users have released false documents allegedly from the Therapeutic Goods Administration falsely claiming that Covid-19 vaccines have caused more than 200 deaths.
The figure they used was actually the number of people who died after receiving the vaccine, but other than one case, none were TGA-related to the vaccine.
The TGA told Guardian Australia that the alleged display of the death counter was “of particular concern” and that it would consider returning it to federal police.
Hill, who has Bruce’s headquarters in suburban Melbourne, complained to Minister of Health Greg Hunt that “serious misinformation” is spreading online “in the absence of a national public health campaign appropriate to combat disinformation “.
Hill posted a photo of himself 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 collected with the online tool CrowdTangle, the photo had the most engagement of all an Australian politician’s Facebook post on May 29.
In addition to replies wishing him good luck and expressing support for the vaccination, many responded with an image citing the TGA Weekly Vaccine Safety Report for incorrectly claiming that there had been 210 “vaccine deaths. Covid-19 ”from January 1 to May 23, not to mention most of the cases. these deaths were not caused by the vaccine.
“Apart from the one Australian case in which death was linked to [blood clots], Covid-19 vaccines did not cause death, ”said the TGA safety report.
More than three quarters of the 210 deaths were in people over the age of 75. “To date, the observed number of deaths reported after vaccination is actually lower than the number of expected deaths,” he said.
The TGA said: “Of particular concern is the alleged publication in particular of the misinformation of the ‘Covid-19 vaccine’ death counter with the apparent approval of the department and the TGA.”
The TGA noted that it is a criminal offense, punishable by up to two years in prison, to pose as a Commonwealth body or act on behalf of one.
“The TGA will assess the information provided in the investigation and refer the matter to the Australian Federal Police as a criminal code violation, if applicable.
“If proof 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 providing “scientific factual evidence of the testing procedure used in Australia that positively identifies 100% Covid-19 … in a living human, beyond any doubt reasonable “.
The letter says such documents do not exist, although the point-of-care testing kits to identify Covid-19 have been approved by the TGA.
Hill told Hunt he was “particularly concerned about the large number of people claiming to share official Australian government information.”
“The lack of a national public health campaign to fight disinformation is extremely worrying.
“When the national government leaves the field, it leaves room for misinformation and conspiracy theories to flourish, especially online.”
Hill called for a “proactive effort to oust and expose the downright crazy stuff going around.”
“Australians will continue to be exposed to restrictions and lockdowns … until a sufficient amount of the population is fully vaccinated.”
In February, more than a fifth of Australians said they would ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ not be vaccinated against the coronavirus, a more recent poll putting the figure at one-third, suggesting Australia will have difficulty obtaining collective immunity.
The federal government has set up a “myth-fighting unit” to tackle what Hunt has called “patently ridiculous” misinformation surrounding the deployment of the Covid-19 vaccine in Australia.
Hunt’s spokesperson referred Guardian Australia to the question “Is this true?” Section of the Department of Health’s website, and noted that Hill himself had provided links to it to debunk claims about his vaccination photograph.
“As always, we suggest Australians seek medical advice from medical experts, not Facebook,” he said.
The budget for the national Covid-19 vaccination campaign has a total budget of $ 40 million over two years. Hunt’s spokesperson cited ads that have been running in all media since May, many containing “top medical authorities” such as TGA Professor John Skerritt, Chief Nurse Alison McMillan and the former doctor. – Deputy Head, Dr Nick Coatsworth.
The government plans to launch a major advertising campaign in July, broadcast on social media and traditional media, which is expected to include celebrities, jokes and songs to get young Australians to get caught.
The government has grappled with misinformation since new independent MP Craig Kelly released unproven Covid treatments while still a Liberal member of government. Scott Morrison has finally distanced himself from Kelly’s comments after weeks of simply advising Australians not to get information on social media.
Kelly’s claims saw her popularity on Facebook skyrocket, before the social media giant stepped in and removed her page.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Facebook had faced criticism for refusing to remove false information on “tax death” circulating during the May 2019 elections.
Hill told Guardian Australia he did not report the issue with his vaccination photo to Facebook because he feared it would be “doomed” and result in the deletion of the original photo, although ‘it has “served a positive purpose in that number people have sent messages seeking appropriate information and help.”
“I have flagged or blocked some of the comments that Facebook will hopefully address, but it’s impossible to handle a deluge of over 14,000 comments.”
Guardian Australia has contacted Facebook for comment.