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Saturday 23 September 2023 Dublin: 8°C
# Misinformation
Facebook runs dozens of ads targeting Irish users with anti-vaccine and Covid-sceptic content
Several ads were removed by the social media firm this week.

DOZENS OF ADS targeting Irish Facebook users with products and services containing Covid-sceptic and anti-vaccine messages have been sold by the social media giant in recent months, an analysis by The Journal has found. 

A search of Facebook’s ad library this week found that the company has shown sponsored posts to Irish users which feature misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines, slogans used by anti-vaccine groups and claims that the pandemic is a hoax.

Almost 40 of these ads have run between September and this week and have targeted Irish users on Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger despite apparently violating the company’s advertising policies.

Those who bought them include a company selling t-shirts, video bloggers promoting their own content and another company which claims to offer a retreat in the south of Spain to people who have been adversely affected by Covid-19 vaccines.

The ads did not run exclusively in Ireland and have been seen by tens of thousands of people, but the advertisers involved had the potential to reach millions of Facebook and Instagram users by sponsoring posts on both platforms.

The company’s policy on advertising related to Covid-19 states that adverts must not contain “content that exploits crises or controversial political or social issues for commercial purposes”.

A Government TD described the level of misinformation in the ads as “startling” and called on Facebook to remove them.

A Facebook spokesperson told The Journal that the ads had been referred to its review team and a number of them had been removed, along with the profiles which posted them.

It follows a report by CNN in December which found similar ads relating to Covid-19 vaccines, as well as others which compared the US government’s response to the pandemic to Nazi Germany and which promoted political violence.

The US outlet found that Facebook earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from such ads, though the amount paid for individual ads which ran in Ireland was less than $100 (€87).

Detox retreat

Since 31 December, Ren3wal – a Spanish company selling a “unique detox retreat for people who suffer from Covid vaccine side-effects” which lists an address in Marbella – has paid for seven posts across the three Facebook platforms.

The business claims to sell week-long ‘medical packages’ on its website at a price of almost €10,000, offering €1,200 discounts to customers who give permission for their medical reports to be used and who supply a written testimonial about the retreat.

The company’s website features positive references from people who claim to be using ivermectin – which has been incorrectly touted as a ‘cure’ for Covid-19 – and who are alleged to have presented with health issues after taking a vaccine against the virus. 

Ads on Facebook for the firm’s retreat feature images of people working out or exercising which contain slogans including: “Get rid of vaccine adverse effects”; “Renew your health after the vaccine”; and “How can I recover my top shape after the vaccine?”.

One ad describes procedures which it says are designed to “treat the harmful effects of extrapulmonary inflammation caused by the toxic spike protein”.

Two others state that the company aims “to get rid of [the vaccine's] harmful substances and restore your health from within”.

Several posts on the company’s Facebook page which are not sponsored also link Covid-19 vaccines to health issues, including suggestions that vaccines cause kidney problems and impact people’s immune systems and physical balance.

Despite there being no evidence that vaccines are responsible for such problems, posts on the page ask questions like: “Do you want to feel strong again after the Covid vaccine?”; “What if I never regain my health?”; and “Are you experiencing health problems after the Covid vaccine?”.

Studies from clinical trials and based on national vaccine rollouts across the world have repeatedly found that Covid-19 vaccines are safe and do not cause health problems in the majority of cases.

In very rare cases, certain Covid-19 vaccines can cause blood clotting or heart problems in younger people, but health authorities worldwide have found that overwhelmingly the benefits outweigh these rare serious side effects.

‘Libertarian t-shirts’ 

Another page, Teeol, has targeted Irish users with t-shirts and baseball caps expressing Covid-sceptic and anti-vaccine views in 30 different posts since September.

The US company sells a range of products which it says combine “creativity about freedom with everything that happens in real life… with high-quality designs about freedom and defending rights”.

Products on its website feature slogans like “Your mask is as useless as Biden”, “The Media is the Virus” and It’s Not About a Virus – it’s about Control”.

Ads by the company on Facebook, Instagram and messenger which ran until this week featured t-shirts with similar slogans, including:

  • “Off to get a booster for soething that hasn’t worked twice already”;
  • “It started as a virus but mutated into an IQ test”;
  • “Pureblood” – a term used by anti-vaxxers to confer social superiority over those who have been vaccinated;
  • “Took an aspirin today to protect others from headaches!” – an ironic reference to the fact that Covid-19 health measures help protect other people from serious illness;
  • “Underwear can’t stop a fart and you think a mask works”;
  • “Our Government is the real pandemic”‘;
  • “The final Covid variant is called Communism”;
  • “I tested positive for refusing to live in fear”.

Other products on Teeol’s website praise Donald Trump, call for Joe Biden to be impeached and advocate the conspiracy theory that the 2020 US presidency was fraudulently won by Biden.

Two ads for Christmas-themed t-shirts suggesting Biden “stole” the election also ran on Facebook and Instagram targeting users in Ireland last November.

On Christmas Day, another page called Just Facts (with Kat) posted an ad incorrectly suggesting that Covid-19 vaccines are not safe, which targeted Irish users.

The page, run by a US-based video blogger called Kat Foronda, claims to share “unbiased information on current events” but regularly posts falsehoods about vaccines and amplifies vaccine-sceptic views.

These include claims that children don’t need to get vaccinated because they’re at low risk of severe Covid-19 and that vaccines can “cause heart damage”.

The ad, which targeted Irish users over Christmas, said that “safety data is lacking” on Covid-19 vaccines – though this is untrue, and trials have overwhelmingly proved that vaccines are safe.

A spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said: “We have removed most of the ads, Facebook Pages, and associated ad accounts reported to us for violating the content and ad polices in place to combat Covid and vaccine misinformation.

“We’re continuing our review and will remove all content, ads and Pages that break our rules.”

Speaking to The Journal, Fine Gael TD Emer Higgins, the party’s spokesperson on for social media, described the ads as “absolutely startling” and said Facebook had a responsibility to remove them.

“Unfortunately these ads are just a drop in the ocean of misinformation and fake news which seems to slips through Facebook’s detection methods,” she told The Journal.

“We know that when it comes to stopping individuals or companies from sharing misinformation, removing the economic incentive is one of the most important actions that social media platforms can take.

“While Facebook has a vast array of moderators reviewing ads, it does also rely on users to flag ads/content that breaks their guidelines.

“But a user may not realise something is misinformation or it may further reinforce their confirmatory biases about the pandemic.”

Higgins added that she would contact Facebook to establish how the ads slipped through the company’s attempts to monitor misinformation and what it would do to combat similar ads in future.