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Health Ministry sets up team to fight fake news on vaccines

Workers closely monitoring traditional and social media nearly 24/7 to find viral misinformation; Justice Ministry assists with getting posts removed

Anti-vaccination slogans and grafitti spray painted on walls of a vaccination center, January 5, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)
Anti-vaccination slogans and grafitti spray painted on walls of a vaccination center, January 5, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

At the Health Ministry COVID-19 operational headquarters, a number of tech-savvy employees are scouring the internet full-time in search of viral fake news which could potentially cause damage to Israel’s coronavirus vaccination drive, according to a report on Saturday.

The team of 11, with an additional seven staff members to join shortly, closely monitors traditional media and social media nearly 24/7 for misrepresented data and false ministry documents that may cause Israelis to refuse to be vaccinated, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

If a social media page or group is found to be spreading false COVID-19 information, it can be removed within 24 hours, using the assistance of the Justice Ministry’s cyber department that contacts the relevant social media giants, the report said.

“The fake news stronghold online is Telegram, that is where most of our monitoring is,” Amit Goldstein, head of the “anti-fake news headquarters,” told Haaretz.

Illustrative: The messaging app Telegram is displayed on a smartphone (AP Photo)

Goldstein explained that what starts on the messaging app Telegram finds its way quickly to other platforms, and since Telegram doesn’t cooperate with authorities, the most they can do is watch where it spreads.

Not all fake news interests the team, only posts that have increased potential to cause damage in terms of the scope of the exposure, Goldstein said.

Over 3.8 million Israelis have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 2.4 million getting both doses. But the inoculation drive has recently slowed.

A senior official in the country’s largest health provider last week blamed online “fake news” for promoting vaccine skepticism.

“At the beginning of the [vaccination] campaign we got used to inoculating between 100,000 and 120,000 people per day, and in the last few days we are barely reaching half of those figures,” Kalanit Kaye, the manager of Clalit’s vaccination drive, told the Ynet news site.

Anti-vaccination slogans and grafitti spray painted on walls of a vaccination center, January 5, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

Facebook on Tuesday, deleted a group 12,000 members, associated with popular Israeli rabbi Amnon Yitzhak that peddled fake news about the pandemic and the immunizations.

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)

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.

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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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