Misinformation continues to circulate about both the Covid virus and Covid vaccines. Today we discuss a particularly dangerous example. It references the official data and all the data it presents can be found in the official source, but through omission of other information and expert analysis in the same source, it leads people to draw the wrong conclusion.

This is too sophisticated for the public to sort through on their own. Government information must be clearly identified and free from impersonation. Deceptive and misleading information like that shown in this example should be labelled or preferably removed. We would do so to protect commercial interests, we must do at least as much to protect people’s health.

The Post

This is designed to look like an official government information announcement. It includes the logo (copied from their website) of the government agency responsible for evaluating the risk and efficacy of the vaccines. It also includes a link to one of the regular updates this agency is releasing. All of this is to designed to present this information as coming from a trusted source.

Analysis Summary

Unlike a lot of the fake information and conspiracy theories we see, this info-graphic while highly misleading and indeed deceptive in the way it presents itself as government information, is not outright fabricating information.

  • The government agency is real and the correct agency.
  • The URL provided is real and works for the very small number of people who type it in (see it here).
  • The statistics on the graphic can be found in the update at that URL, but they have been provided without context or analysis.
  • The info-graphic is designed to lead people to draw a conclusion which is the opposite of what the update itself says.

Vaccination is not causing people to die

As the updates states (in bold):

Apart from the single Australian case in which death was linked to TTS, COVID-19 vaccines have not been found to cause death.

While the number shown in the info-graphic for people who have died following vaccination is correct, this number includes all deaths – including those that statistically would have occurred anyway. The update explains this in details:

“Part of our analysis includes comparing expected natural death rates to observed death rates following immunisation. To date, the observed number of deaths reported after vaccination is actually less than the expected number of deaths.”

So the info-graphic would have you believe the vaccine is causing deaths, while in reality the finding is in fact that those who are vaccinated are less likely to die than people in general (even outside of a pandemic). This makes sense as those who put effort into their health, and listen to medical advice, tend to live longer and healthier lives than those that don’t. In statistical terms we would refer to this as “selection bias”, as it is not the experimental intervention (i.e. the vaccine) that is causing this discrepancy but rather that those who listen to medical advice (in general) are more likely to be in the group that is vaccinated… so having this group perform better than the average is to be expected. It also supports the argument that those who listen to experts generally do better in life.

A common statistical error is mistaking causation (the fact two trends in the data move together) for correlation (the idea one of the things causes the other). In this case the mistake is far simpler, there is no correlation to begin with.

Adverse effects

The info-graphic would have you believe the vaccine is flawed because of a large volume of adverse effects. Putting this with the death figure (in what is pretending to be government information) suggests these adverse effects are serious and unexpected. This is not the case. The update explains:

The AEFI [adverse events following immunisation] most commonly reported to the TGA following COVID-19 vaccines are side effects that are observed with vaccines generally. They include headache, muscle and joint pain, fever and injection site reactions.

In other words, as we all know, getting any immunization (e.g. your regular flu vaccine) comes with some temporary side effects. At the lower end, getting an injection is likely leave you with a sore arm. This vaccine is no different. There is no surprise here. The only thing surprising is that this data is even being talked about. After all, the same sort of numbers could be published for the annual flu vaccine in any year. It is the large number of vaccinations and interest in Covid that is driving this… not anything usual about the expected side effects.

The updated explains:

  1. As part of a “commitment to transparency, the TGA publishes adverse event reports for all medicines and vaccines” based on data from the public, doctors, nurses, state and territory health departments, pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies.
  2. This update explicitly state that the information on these adverse effects “cannot be used to determine whether a medicine or vaccine is safe or not” – their approval of the medicine or vaccine is what signals it is safe

As a final point, returning to that correlation is not causation issue, the update notes that:

Gathering reports of adverse events following immunisation (AEFI) is just the first step in determining whether or not the effect is related to the vaccine and whether a significant safety issue is involved.

The Spread & Response

This post is not an isolated incident. The same infographic is appearing across a range of Facebook posts, both within and outside Australia. It can also be found on Twitter, blogs and other sites.

As reported in News.com.au, the image was also posted as a comment to the Facebook page of Federal Labor MP Julian Hill. As reported by SBS, the government agency being impersonated, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, released a statement saying saying the “alleged posting, particularly of the false information of the death counter from ‘Covid-19 vaccines’ with the department’s and TGA’s apparent endorsement, is particularly concerning”.

The agency noted that posting this information impersonating a government agency could be a criminal offence, the penalty could be up to two years in jail, and they are considering referring such incidents to the Australian Federal Police. They stated that they would “assess the information provided in the enquiry and refer the matter to the Australian federal police as an offence under the criminal code as appropriate” and that “If evidence of a Facebook post is provided or found the TGA will also engage with Facebook.”

The Online Hate Prevention Institute has provided Facebook with multiple current example of this infographic which are live on the Facebook platform as at June 7th, 2021. This problem, however, is larger than just Facebook. A broader response is needed.

Conclusion

This info-graphic was deeply misleading, but also sophisticated. It operates at a level where many people may be unable to identify it misinformation. It misrepresented government information, which it references, in a way that requires more than just a casual check to discover. In the case of such misinformation, particularly related to a public health emergency, governments and social media platforms have an obligation to act.

  • As a public safety matter the government needs to regulate to ensure official government messages can be readily differentiated from other sources information and that there are penalties for impersonating government messaging. Existing laws may be sufficient, but fact such impersonation is illegal, and that action will be taken, needs to be promoted.
  • At a minimum info-graphics that are unauthorised and misrepresent themselves as government information should be removed or publically flagged by social media companies. This is technically feasible if governments register their info-graphics via a portal provided by social media companies, similar but unregistered graphics can then be automatically hidden pending a review.
  • Government updates are available to the general public and need to lead with brief, clear and visually attention grabbing summary of key public safety messages and how this document does or does not relate to that messaging. In this case a statement that: “COVID vaccines are safe and recommended by the TGA. Some side effects (adverse reactions) are to be expected, as is normal for all vaccines. The TGA is statistically monitoring the impact on the average deaths rates during the vaccination program and present data shows the vaccinated population has less deaths per capita than the expected average in a normal year.”

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