Science

Australia COVID vaccine rollout marred by tech giant’s decision


In a statement, Facebook said government pages should not have been impacted by the ban and it would restore the organisations that were “inadvertently affected”.

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After midday on Thursday, many non-news pages appeared to be restored but some remained blocked, including vaccination-promotion charity Immunisation Foundation of Australia.

Australian Medical Association president Dr Omar Khorshid said blocking news organisations and health pages was a huge issue just days out from the start of a national vaccination program.

“We are extremely concerned about Facebook using its market power to bully the Australian government, and in doing so putting the health of Australians at risk,” he said.

Earlier on Thursday, official government health pages for Queensland, the ACT, South Australia and Tasmania were all blocked, while the federal Department of Health page remained active.

Hospitals were also affected by the ban, including Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital and St Vincent’s Hospital, while St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney remained unaffected.

University of Sydney vaccine expert Professor Julie Leask said the timing of Facebook’s mass blocking “couldn’t be worse”.

“Three days before our COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Australians using Facebook as their primary source of news can no longer get access to credible information about vaccination from news organisations and some government and public health organisation pages,” she said.

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“This is the very time we rely on people accessing vaccine information easily, from their preferred platform.”

A St Vincent’s Health Australia spokesman it was “extremely concerning” to discover the Melbourne hospital had been blocked, particularly because Australia was “on the eve” of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

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“We hope this situation can be rectified very shortly,” the organisation said.

Content on pro-vaccination group Light For Riley’s Immunisation Foundation of Australia page has also been scrubbed by Facebook, and still appeared blank early on Thursday afternoon.

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Director Catherine Hughes said the foundation was “hardly a media company”.

“To have this happen at a time when we’re literally about to roll out the COVID vaccination, it almost seems like Facebook is having an impact on our COVID vaccine rollout, which is just unbelievable,” she said.

“We have been kept completely in the dark. There is no message on our page, telling us what’s going on. All the content on our page we’d spent hours scheduling has been completely removed.”

Science & Technology Australia is among several science organisations who have seen their Facebook pages stripped by today’s decision.

STA chief executive Misha Schubert said without reliable scientific evidence available on the platform, misinformation could creep in.

“It is crucial, especially amid a pandemic and a bushfire season, that Australians can access expert advice from trusted science organisations across the country,” Ms Schubert said.

Large corporations and peak sporting bodies were also affected by the tech titan’s decision, as well as the Bureau of Meteorology and Fire and Rescue NSW.

Restoring affected health pages was a start, Dr Khorshid said, but the majority of people still get their news through Facebook.

“In removing legitimate news sources, they’ve removed important sources of information during this pandemic,” he said.

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