Vaccine and death: Govt rebuts claim, Facebook takes it down, then restores it

On May 25, the ‘PIB Fact Check’ handle shared a post on Facebook and Instagram, in which it had debunked a claim attributed to French Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier that people getting vaccinated against Covid-19 would die within two years.

Triggering another showdown between the Centre and social media platforms, late last month, Facebook and Instagram took down a fact-check post by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), in which it had rebutted a false claim linking Covid vaccinations to death.

The post was restored on both platforms following the government’s intervention.

On May 25, the ‘PIB Fact Check’ handle shared a post on Facebook and Instagram, in which it had debunked a claim attributed to French Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier that people getting vaccinated against Covid-19 would die within two years.

Attaching an image of the alleged claim, the post said, “An image allegedly quoting a French Nobel Laureate on #COVID19 vaccines is circulating on social media… The claim in the image is #FAKE… #COVID19 Vaccine is completely safe… Do not forward this image.”

A day later, the post was taken down by both the online platforms without any explanation. Facebook, which also owns Instagram, followed it up with a warning that PIB’s page could be unpublished for posting “false news”, sources said.

PIB officials then reached out to the IT Ministry, who in turn, got in touch with senior executives from Facebook and Instagram through a series of emails, complaining about the lack of transparency on appeals and the fact-check process. Following their intervention, the post was restored on both platforms.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to The Indian Express that the platform had “temporarily blocked the content by mistake” but later restored it.

The incident has also led to the IT Ministry raising concerns about the lack of transparency in the appointment of fact-checkers. In internal meetings with other government departments who had flagged the issue, the Ministry is learnt to have assured the officials of being “aware of the issue”.

“Both the platforms claim to have robust fact-checking mechanisms in place. When we reached out to them on this, they said that this was done inadvertently since a machine flagged it as false news. We have asked them as to why it was not cross-checked by a human fact checker,” an IT Ministry official said.

The IT Ministry is also likely to write to the social media intermediaries to be more transparent about the fact-checking process and share details of fact-checkers they have appointed.

This issue of fact-checkers on social media platforms had come up last month too, when Twitter tagged posts by BJP members on an alleged Congress “toolkit” as “manipulated media”. The ministry had then written a letter to Twitter seeking that the tag be removed as local law enforcement agencies were already pursuing the matter.

Senior IT Ministry officials said this was not the first time that posts and content shared by PIB were deleted by Facebook and later restored after intervention from senior government officials.

Earlier, on May 10, a post put up by the PIB Fact Check team on whether patients in early stages of Covid should take steroids had been flagged and taken down by Facebook and Instagram. Facebook had then flagged the content as fake, but later restored it, terming it a “one-off” event.

“There has been no transparency about the fact-checkers who have been deployed by these social media entities. If posts by PIB are taken down without any review system in process, it adds to the debate of neutrality of fact-checkers as well,” another Ministry official said.

Micro-blogging site Twitter told The Indian Express it does not employ any fact-checkers in India and that it engages fact-checking agencies certified by the IFCN (International Fact Checking Network) in India “only for knowledge-sharing around relevant updates to Twitter Rules”.

The IFCN network has members from India as well, including fact-checking websites such as BOOMLive, The Quint, and Digit Eye India. Alt News, which was a signatory to the IFCN Code of Principles, has not renewed its verified signatory status.*

On the lines of Twitter, Facebook too had last month announced new ways to inform people if they are interacting with content that has been rated by a fact-checker.

“Whether it’s false or misleading content about Covid-19 and vaccines, climate change, elections or other topics, we are making sure fewer people see misinformation on our apps,” Facebook had said in a blog post.

Source: The Indian Express

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