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Facebook removes popular rabbi’s anti-vaxxer group that peddled fake news

After ramping up efforts to curb COVID-19 misinformation, social media bans 12,000-member group associated with Amnon Yitzhak

Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak speaks at a lecture in the northern city of Tiberias, on March 3, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak speaks at a lecture in the northern city of Tiberias, on March 3, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

As Facebook ramps up its fight against rampant misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, the social media giant on Tuesday deleted a group associated with popular Israeli rabbi Amnon Yitzhak that peddled fake news about the pandemic and the immunizations.

The group, which had over 12,000 members, featured false information about the virus and the vaccines’ efficacy and safety, alongside conspiracy videos and efforts to thwart the country’s rapid vaccination drive, according to the Ynet news site.

Amnon Yitzhak is known for convincing hordes of secular Israelis to embrace religious observance by warning them, among other methods, of the grisly fate that awaits them in hell should they persist in their errant ways.

The rabbi, who boasts a sizable online presence and following, launched a failed bid in 2013 to enter the Knesset as the head of his own political party.

Facebook still has a series of other groups and pages associated with Yitzhak, with tens of thousands of members, many of which are also peddling misinformation about vaccines. These include his own online TV channel called “Virus TV.” They were being reviewed by the social network as well, Ynet reported.

The report said Yitzhak’s videos were still up on YouTube and were regularly being shared on WhatsApp and Telegram.

Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak arrives at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court for a court hearing on his lawsuit against Facebook, October 27, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In October, Yitzhak sued Facebook, Google and YouTube in the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, accusing them of failing to remove defamatory ads published against him that allege he has urged the burning of books written by the late top spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. There hasn’t yet been a ruling in that suit.

Yitzhak has been involved in many other libel lawsuits over the years, including against media outlets and individuals that criticized him or published investigations into alleged misconduct.

He has made many inflammatory comments in the past, including saying women shouldn’t drive and deriding the pope as an “idol” and saying the chief rabbis were “impure” and “sinful” for meeting him.

The move came a day after Israeli media reported that the claims of another popular, anti-vaccination rabbi were fueling fears of the coronavirus shot in Israel and had been blamed by health officials for a slowdown in the country’s vaccination campaign.

Rabbi Yuval Hacohen Asherov, who advises numerous Israeli celebrities, has released videos falsely claiming the vaccines cause infertility and damage to the immune system, and can even be fatal. “There are fears that the coronovirus vaccine can be fatal, causes infertility… and severe allergies that can be fatal,” he said in one clip. “Scientists are saying this. It’s not me who’s saying this.”

Many of his videos have been viewed 100,000-200,000 times.

Rabbi Yuval HaCohen Asherov (YouTube screenshot)

The development also came days after Facebook announced that it had removed another major group promoting conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines. The group in recent weeks had urged its thousands of members to schedule appointments to be inoculated and then to cancel them at the last minute, forcing health providers to throw out unused vaccine doses.

The Hebrew-language group was called “No to the green passport,” referring to a document that will enable vaccinated people to attend certain public venues and events and potentially travel abroad without quarantine. Many of its 14,000 members made use of the group to promote unfounded allegations that the vaccine is harmful.

Facebook said that the group violated its community standards regarding fake news.

Illustrative: A man passes a Facebook screen at the Gamescom gathering in Cologne, Germany, August 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

The removal of the group from the social media platform came after the Health Ministry reportedly asked Facebook to take down the posts of anti-vaxxers bragging about their exploits. The social media giant has pledged to keep anti-vaxxers and those spreading fake vaccination information off its platform.

Facebook on Monday said it was ramping up efforts to stem the worldwide spread of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, spread facts, and figure out who might be wary of getting the shot. The move includes banning groups that repeatedly spread misinformation and debunked claims about the virus and vaccines.

The leading social network has been highlighting health advice from reliable agencies and removing COVID-19 misinformation for months, and on Monday expanded that initiative.

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