Anti-vaccination group Voices for Freedom booted off Facebook for spreading COVID-19 misinformation

A New Zealand-based group spreading COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook has been booted off the platform, losing access to thousands of followers.

Voices for Freedom posted "misinformation that could cause physical harm", the social network said. "We encourage free expression, but don't allow false information about COVID-19 that could contribute to physical harm." 

The group, co-founded by food blogger and former Advance NZ candidate Claire Deeks, had more than 12,000 followers on Facebook. 

One of the group's co-founders, Alia Bland - who uses the name Alia Bee on Facebook - said they knew it would happen, "we just didn't know quite when".

"We thought we might have received a warning or two first, but no. No posts removed. No warnings received. Just an unpublished status with no ability to challenge the action."

She claimed Facebook removed the page because they were "well over target" and "growing at over 1000 per week", reaching "almost half a million people" each month.

"Our posts were mostly Government material published on their various websites (Ministry of Health, Medsafe etc.)... Video footage of 'health' authorities here and across the world talking about their policies.... Mainstream media news articles," she wrote.

"We KNOW these groups are themselves sharing misinformation, so we await their channels being yanked too."

In addition to spreading misinformation online, earlier this year the group printed thousands of flyers and put them in letterboxes around the country. The flyers contained numerous false claims about COVID-19 - one had 17 specific claims, all of them deemed false or misleading according to experts in vaccination, virology and disease modelling spoken to by Newshub.

The NZ Herald reported on Thursday members of the group had been showing up to schools, handing out vaccine misinformation to students and staff.

In April, Facebook said it had taken down "more than 12 million pieces of content about COVID-19 and vaccines" after they were deemed false by its "global network of more than 80 independent fact-checkers".

"Under our Community Standards, we remove misinformation when public health authorities conclude that the information is false and likely to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm," its site reads.

That includes claiming COVID-19 doesn't exist or minimising its severity, making false claims about how it's spread, promoting unproven treatments and cures, discouraging good health practices and making false claims about vaccine efficacy and side-effects - all things Voices for Freedom has done. 

Though it's banned misinformation, Facebook is struggling to stay on top of it - US President Joe Biden recently saying the network was "killing people" by allowing it to spread. 

Voices for Freedom has claimed its information is based on scientific advice, but has in the past repeatedly refused to tell Newshub which scientists it has on board. None of the group's co-founders have a background in science, Bland calling them "mumma bears" in her Facebook post. 

The group has also refused to say who is paying for its campaigns, except to say it's "entirely funded by public donation".

Instead of Facebook, Voices for Freedom urged followers to download a different networking app reported to be rife with COVID-19 misinformation, far-right groups and followers of the bizarre US-based QAnon cult. 

The Advance NZ Facebook page was removed in October last year for similar reasons.

Countries with widespread vaccine coverage have seen mortality rates from COVID-19 drop remarkably. The UK, currently going through a wave of infection similar to that seen earlier this year is seeing less than one-tenth the number of deaths, thanks to two-thirds of the population having at least one dose.