Calls for Facebook to take stronger action on COVID-19 misinformation as anti-vax leaders banned

A group monitoring conspiracy theories on social media is calling on Facebook to do more to stamp out false and misleading claims about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine.

Two leaders of anti-vax movements in New Zealand have been slapped with temporary bans from Facebook, though the social media giant will not confirm the situation.

The Outdoors Party posted on Facebook that co-leader Sue Grey, a Nelson-based lawyer, has been banned from the platform for 30 days.

The Destiny Church-affiliated Freedom and Rights Coalition Canterbury page said Derek Tait, Destiny Church's senior pastor in Christchurch, had also been slapped with a 30-day ban.

"We don't allow anyone, including elected officials or public figures, to share misinformation about COVID-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm, or misinformation that could lead to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy," a spokesperson for Meta, the company which operates Facebook, said in response to questions from RNZ about what was being done to control the spread of misinformation in New Zealand.

"People who repeatedly breach these policies will have restrictions placed on their page, if removals hit a certain threshold we will remove the page. We strongly encourage people to report content, so we can review it and take the appropriate action."

However, Facebook would not comment on whether Grey and Tait had been banned from the platform, or why.

Debunking Conspiracies Aotearoa said it had been frustrated by Facebook's response to disinformation and misinformation related to the pandemic.

"We are all pretty frustrated that no matter how many times we report harmful content to Facebook it is ignored and these recent bans are far too late as major influencers have already done a lot of damage," a spokesperson said.

"We are unsure why Facebook are not so willing to act on these people despite their claims of tackling COVID-19 misinformation. Many of the major people in fact seem to be amplified and come up in video feeds all the time."

It appeared retaliatory campaigns to report posts by Debunking Conspiracies Aotearoa en masse were being organised on Telegram, the spokesperson said.

"Our page itself got done for spam. Facebook gave us no way of challenging it even though it was a post against disinformation," they said.

"We are keeping an eye on NZ-targeted Telegram pages too, which of course are even worse, but if Facebook had taken action early on many people would not have been pulled into these echo chambers where they then encourage them to move to these more extremist platforms."