Facebook under fire for allowing anti-vaccine doctors grow into 'superstars'

Facebook under fire for allowing anti-vaccine doctors grow into 'superstars'

Joe McCarron, from Dungloe, who had refused the vaccine, left hospital after being treated for Covid-19 and later died.

An international group of former and current healthcare professionals promoting anti-vaccine sentiment have reached millions of users on Facebook, despite promises by the platform to tackle disinformation, a report has claimed.

The World Doctors Alliance, which has members across the world, including Ireland's Dolores Cahill, has falsely claimed that Covid-19 is a hoax. 

Researchers at the London-based think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) claim that Facebook is failing in its commitment to prohibit and remove false claims and tackle prominent groups and individuals who spread them.

The report also claims to expose major gaps in the efficacy of Facebook’s fact-checking program in languages other than English.

Figures released by ISD show that the Facebook pages of World Doctors Alliance members, many of whom are still active on the site and gained traction before Facebook removed the main account, have a following of more than 550,000 users.

This increased by 13,215% between January 2020 and July 2021. Videos posted by these pages have been viewed more than 21.1m times.

These pages have accumulated a total of 5.77m interactions since January 2020, with interaction rates increasing by 85% in the first six months of 2021 compared to the previous six months.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Aoife Gallagher, the study’s lead author, who is based in Dublin, said that one of the concerning factors of this group is that many are actual doctors, which gives a “veneer of credibility”. 

This allows them to manipulate people's trust in science,” she added.

Ms Gallagher said that platforms, especially Facebook, gives these individuals a high level of exposure to specific groups of people, allowing them to become “superstars” of the Covid-sceptic movement.

With 50,000 adults in Ireland yet to be fully vaccinated, Ms Gallagher said that research shows that there is evidence that there are people who have listened to “this kind of rhetoric” on social media and have cited this for the reason they are refusing to get vaccinated.

This can have serious health consequences, Ms Gallagher said, and pointed out the death of 67-year-old Joe McCarron from Dungloe, who left hospital after being treated for Covid, returned, and later died.

“I can't say for sure whether he didn't get vaccinated because of stuff that he read online, but he certainly refused the vaccine and then went on to die from Covid,” said Mrs Gallagher.

In response, a spokesperson for Facebook said they removed the group named in this report, World Freedom Alliance (parent group of the World Doctors Alliance) for "repeatedly violating our Covid-19 policies".

"We will continue to remove pages, groups, or accounts that repeatedly violate our policies,” the spokesperson said. 

Since the pandemic began, our goal has been to promote reliable information about Covid-19, take more aggressive action against misinformation, and encourage people to get vaccinated.

“So far, we’ve connected over 2bn people to authoritative information from health experts, removed 20m pieces of Covid misinformation, and labelled more than 190m pieces of Covid content rated by our fact-checking partners.”

Neither The World Doctors Alliance nor Dolores Cahill responded to a request for comment.

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