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EXCLUSIVE: The HSE has gone far beyond reporting misinformation

All of the tweets contained within this story were reported by the HSE to Twitter as containing harmful misinformation.

Gript can reveal that the HSE’s policy of reporting misinformation they find on social media has extended, either deliberately or negligently, far beyond simply reporting misinformation.

Whilst the HSE has said it is only reporting “harmful misinformation and disinformation” our review of the more than 1,300 social media posts they have reported shows that the HSE reported the following as misinformation:

  • articles from mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times, and an article from an associate editor of the British Medical Journal.
  • early reports that the AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines could be linked to blood clots.
  • at least two videos of Parliamentarians speaking in their respective Parliaments, neither of which contained any incorrect medical information.
  • political comments about lockdowns and anti-lockdown protests, even when those comments contained no medical claims or references to COVID-19.
  • posts which made negative comments about particular individuals working in the medical or academic fields, but which made no medical claims.
  • posts which were clearly and unambiguously jokes.

 

Our review showed that the HSE reported material from the Hill, Politico, the Jerusalem Post, Gript, Fox, ABC, the New York Post, Reuters, the New York Times, the British Medical Journal, and a local TV station in Central Iowa as misinformation. None of the material reviewed by Gript appeared to constitute misinformation. The majority of the material consisted of early reports of concerns surrounding blood clotting and the AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines. In both of those instances the European Medicines Agency (EMA) ultimately found that there was a risk those vaccines could be linked to blood clots, validating those reports.

Given that these reports brought to light legitimate public health concerns regarding potential side-effects of the vaccines, and that these side-effects were later judged to be severe enough to warrant numerous governments to reorganise their national vaccine programmes in order to minimise those risks it appears there is a strong argument that the HSE’s anti-misinformation programmes, by seeking the removal of these pieces, actively acted to undermine public health.

The HSE has also failed to remove numerous posts which it considers to be harmful misinformation from its own Facebook page. The comments were reported to Facebook, but it appears that the HSE took no further steps to hide or delete the comments themselves, despite the HSE’s Facebook Community Management Policy allowing them to do so. As such, members of the public who access the HSE’s Facebook page are being exposed to what the HSE itself considers to be harmful misinformation.

Moving from media to politics our review showed that the HSE reported a video of Senator Gerard Craughwell speaking in the Seanad; a video of Conservative MP Steve Baker speaking to a House of Commons committee meeting; at least one post in which a member of the public asked an elected representative to submit a parliamentary query (PQ); and multiple posts supporting protests against lockdowns.

Senator Gerard Craughwell, in the video the HSE deemed to be misinformation, said that he supported the vaccination programme, but that older people had a legitimate fear of receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, given the blood clotting issues. The Senator spoke about the threat of blood clots from the vaccine, his own heart problems, his own concerns and those of people who had contacted him, and asked if it was fair that elderly people were being told they had to take the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The video of Conservative MP Steve Baker consisted of the MP telling a House of Commons committee meeting that vaccine passports would be counter-productive and an infringement of civil liberties. In this instance the HSE has already admitted to The Times that this video was reported “in error,” but it’s unclear how, or why, a British parliamentarian, speaking to a British Parliamentary Committee, is of any legitimate interest or concern to the HSE.

On the PQ, the HSE reported a tweet which asked Michael McNamara TD to submit a PQ asking how many people had died within 3 weeks of taking a Covid vaccination. Whilst the HSE may argue that the post carries an implication that the vaccine has caused deaths, and therefore constitutes “harmful misinformation,” it appears clear that the HSE attempted to remove a direct request to a parliamentarian to submit a PQ, something which is an absolutely accepted part of the Irish political system.

Numerous posts promoting, or discussing, anti-lockdown protests were also flagged as misinformation by the HSE, even when those posts made no medical claims or references to COVID-19. It’s possible the HSE will argue that the events being promoted would have involved speakers who would have engaged in harmful misinformation, and that may or may not have been the case, but what is clear is that the HSE, either deliberately or negligently, actively attempted to remove political speech, which itself contained no misinformation, from social media.

It’s unclear how the HSE is deciding what posts constitute harmful misinformation, but a review of links contained within material which the HSE released to the transparency campaigner and journalist Ken Foxe, shows that some of the material reported by the HSE was originally flagged by a company called Kinzen.

Screenshot of Kinzen link contained within the HSE database

Kinzen was set up in 2017, although it was then called Neva Labs, by Mark Little, formerly of RTE and Storyful, Áine Kerr, formerly of Storyful and Facebook, and Paul Watson, formerly of Storyful. Watson has since moved on and Kinzen’s “Company” page features a photo which Watson has been cropped out of and text saying Kinzen was “founded by Áine Kerr and Mark Little.”

The company initially positioned itself as an app which could curate your news consumption and guarantee you an interesting, trustworthy, and personalised newsfeed, but they have recently repositioned themselves to deal with disinformation. It’s unclear when exactly that change happened, but up to August of 2020 their website still spoke about Kinzen as aiming to “give you control of a daily news routine that sharpens your focus and broadens your mind.”

Since that change Kinzen has seen its revenue increase dramatically, with the Business Post reporting that Kinzen expects to triple their revenue in 2022. The Department of Health has been paying Kinzen for briefings on Covid-19 misinformation since earlier this year. We asked the Department of Health if they had been passing those briefings on the HSE, in order to have the HSE flag them as misinformation, but we have yet to receive a response.

We asked both Kinzen and the HSE about the nature of the relationship between them and if they are working together. Kinzen did not acknowledged receipt of our questions. The HSE told Gript they would respond with information clarifying the exact nature of their relationship, but we have so far received no further information.

Whilst the HSE has also so far failed to answer our questions regarding how they are determining which material to report, it would appear fair to assume, based on the types of content being reported, and the scattershot nature of much of it, that the HSE is using an algorithm to find misinformation.

We base that assumption on two things. Firstly, the inclusion of material which is clearly and unambiguously a joke. This sort of material should be immediately clear to a human eye, but it is exactly the sort of content that an algorithm would struggle to differentiate from actual misinformation.

Secondly, the material collected doesn’t just include material from Ireland. It also includes material from England, America, and possibly the entirety of the English speaking world. It’s unlikely that the HSE would assign staff to flag misinformation in America. And yet we see tweets like the below, about the American rapper DMX, being reported as misinformation by the HSE.

We also see instances in which a particular tweet is flagged as misinformation, but tweets responding to that tweet, which contain the same sort of content as the original but in different words, are not being flagged as misinformation. We’d expect to see that sort of behaviour in instances in which someone was using an algorithm working to a set list of key words or phrases.

We asked the HSE if it was the case that an algorithm was being used to classify material as disinformation, and if so if that algorithm was operated by the HSE or Kinzen. We have yet to receive a response.

Overall, our review of the material reported by the HSE shows that the organization is reporting material which, by any reasonable standard, does not constitute misinformation, harmful or otherwise. Of particular concern should be the fact that the HSE sought to have removed political speech, comments by parliamentarians, and news reports which led to improvements in public health outcomes, and that this was done with no clear oversight or explanation as to why it was appropriate.

When we asked what safeguards or policies were in place to ensure legitimate content was not mistakenly reported as harmful misinformation the HSE told us that the final decision to remove material rests with the platform, and that social media platforms have their own policies “that enable them to evaluate if a post should be removed from their platform or action taken on the account that it’s posted.” An unkind, but perhaps not unfair, reading of that statement is that the HSE does not have safeguards or policies in place to prevent them seeking the removal of legitimate material, and they’ve taken a “God will know his own” approach to the matter.

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