Facebook deletes antivax posts as prosecutors warn against spreading false info

Director of the cyber department in the State Attorney’s Office says dissemination of untruths about the coronavirus vaccine could amount to a criminal offense

Silhouettes are seen in front of the logo of US social media Facebook in Brussels, February 14, 2020. (Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)
Silhouettes are seen in front of the logo of US social media Facebook in Brussels, February 14, 2020. (Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

As Israel kicked off its mass inoculation drive on Sunday, state prosecutors warned that the distribution of false material about the vaccine could amount to a criminal offense as it was announced that Facebook deleted dozens of posts containing falsehoods about the inoculation.

The false material was taken down from the social network as part of a joint effort between the tech giant and the cyber division of the State Attorney’s Office.

Additionally, four groups were removed from Facebook for propagating false information about vaccinations, prosecutors said.

“Dissemination of these publications may constitute a criminal offense,” the cyber division of the State Attorney’s Office said in a statement.

A medical staff member receives a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Israel, Dec. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

According to Channel 13 news, prosecutors have been examining groups that deliberately disseminated false information, including “false content intended to sow panic and motivate people to avoid getting vaccinated.”

Haim Wismonsky, director of the cyber department in the State Attorney’s Office, said that false publications about vaccination pose a threat to public health.

“The distribution of these false publications may amount to a criminal offense and therefore the department has acted to get them removed from the Facebook platform,” he told the outlet. “These publications may pose a real danger to public health, due to concerns that those exposed to the posts will mistakenly believe that they are true and will refrain from receiving the vaccine.”

In this Aug. 11, 2019, photo, an iPhone displays the Facebook app (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

Facebook said in a blog post earlier this month addressing the matter of false information about the vaccine that it would remove posts that could lead to “imminent physical harm.”

Posts that fall afoul of the policy could include phony claims about vaccine safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects.

“For example, we will remove false claims that COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips, or anything else that isn’t on the official vaccine ingredient list,” the company said.

Conspiracy theories about the vaccines that are already known to be false will also be removed.

Twitter said last week that it will begin removing misinformation about COVID-19 vaccinations from its site.

It listed among posts that will removed as those including false claims that the virus is not real, debunked claims about the effects of receiving the vaccine and baseless claims that suggest that immunizations are used to harm or control people.

Additionally, a British government report last month found online forums frequented by those opposed to vaccinations are hotbeds of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein receives a coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on December 19, 2020. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who was vaccinated on Saturday evening, last week criticized Israelis who spread fake news and unverified claims about coronavirus vaccines, saying it could cause people to die if they take their advice and refuse to vaccinate.

Israel’s vaccine drive officially began in earnest on Sunday morning, with healthcare workers, the president, and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff set to receive the coronavirus shot throughout the day.

From Monday, Israelis aged 60-plus and at-risk populations can receive a vaccine at health maintenance organizations (HMOs) with an appointment.

The government hopes to inoculate some 60,000 people per day and as many as two million Israelis by the end of January. But Hebrew media reports said the first week would serve as a pilot program, tamping down expectations that hundreds of thousands of Israelis would be vaccinated within days.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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