Takedown: The slick anti-vaxxing group that just got banned by Facebook

Facebook has taken down a social media page operated by a prominent Covid-19 activist organisation for breaching its rules about “harmful misinformation” and “false claims”.

The move has deprived the Voices for Freedom group of its most visible social media presence, although one expert on false and misleading information says the removal will also fulfil conspiracy theories among its followers.

Voices for Freedom launched in January and – until today – saw its support base on Facebook grow to more than 14,000 followers.

It positioned itself as a champion against what it claimed were attacks on freedom – such as mask wearing on public transport – and bolstered its support with slick marketing and a line of merchandise.

While pushing its claims to be defending freedom, it also posed questions which included asking “how Medsafe and the NZ Government can continue to defend the choice to inject our precious children with an experimental product”.

It hosted regular online events featuring anti-vaccination or Covid-19 questioning campaigners. One recent event asked: “Covid-19 & The Pfizer Vaccine: Fact or Fantasy?” Comments on the page referred to Covid-19 vaccination as the “genocide jab” and the “experimental vaccine”.

This week, the NZ Herald asked Facebook how the page met Facebook’s benchmark of standards.

After considering the content carried on the page, Facebook responded by saying it did not and that the page had been removed.

A spokesman for Facebook said the company had built a collection of claims about Covid-19 and vaccines developed to inhibit the disease. In a statement, the company said it did “not allow false claims which public health experts have advised us could lead to Covid-19 vaccine rejection”.

“We have removed this page for violating our policies in this area.”

Voices for Freedom founder Claire Deeks was approached for comment. She did not want to do so in a telephone interview and has yet to respond to an email.

In a statement in March, Deeks – a former candidate in the Advance NZ political party conceived by Jami-Lee Ross – said it was mainstream media that spread false information.

Voices for Freedom has been involved in distributing The Real News, a magazine produced by a publisher who once championed footage of a faked alien corpse as proof of extraterrestrial life.

In that statement, Voices for Freedom referred to “rushed and experimental medicines”, “dangerous lockdowns” and “ineffectual face-coverings”. Each position is contrary to widely accepted public health advice.

Voices for Freedom had anticipated it would be banned from Facebook and, potentially, other social media platforms. It had posted instructions for followers on how to move to lesser-known social media platforms, such as GAB and Telegram.

Both GAB and Telegram had been identified as popular with groups pushing other fringe views, particular with white supremacists. Telegram was also noted for its use by Islamic fundamentalists such as Isis.

In the wake of the Facebook page being removed, the Voices for Freedom Telegram feed told those signed up: “Your page has been unpublished – those are the words we knew would come, we just didn’t know quite when.”

It claimed the page was taken down because it had been so successful with its messaging, rejecting claims of “misinformation” while saying false information had actually been spread by Government agencies such as the Ministry of Health and Medsafe, and by the media.

University of Auckland research fellow Kate Hannah, who leads The Disinformation Project at the Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Excellence, said the removal of the page would be seen by some associated with the group as proof of their conspiracy theories.

“A Facebook takedown of Voices for Freedom’s page will actually fit their narrative.”

Hannah said groups like Voices for Freedom had increased their rhetoric as the pandemic went on and as vaccines become more widely available.

She said Facebook should make available the mechanism it worked through deciding to remove the page. She said Facebook in Australia and New Zealand had appeared to become “more responsive” but it had not been possible to see exactly how the process worked or where the company benchmarked online behaviour.

Facebook has come under increasing pressure to deal with content on its platforms that is contrary to health advice. United States president Joe Biden was recently asked about disinformation on social media platforms such as Facebook, responding: “They’re killing people. Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”

Biden’s comments reflect the divergent path the pandemic is taking in the US, with it biting deep into communities with low vaccine acceptance. Data across the world has shown that vaccines have reduced the seriousness of the illness, and the rate of death, among those with Covid-19.

Facebook’s statement to the Herald said it had banned content that interfered with the administration of Covid-19 vaccines, and content that attempted to band together people to reject vaccination.

It said it was taking further steps to reduce distribution of content that did not violate its policies but took an “alarmist” or “sensationalist” approach, or which disparaged people over their vaccine choices.

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