In December 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, an Argentinian government official published a post about the approval of a new Argentinian-developed treatment for COVID-19 to his personal Facebook feed. At the time of publication, the treatment had already been approved by the Argentine government agency that controls and guarantees the efficacy, security, and quality of drugs, food, and medical devices (ANMAT, for its acronym in Spanish). The government official’s post referred to that approval. A few days after the post was published, Facebook removed the post on the basis of an alleged infringement of the platform’s community guidelines against misinformation.
On December 22, 2020, ANMAT, the Argentine equivalent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approved the use of a therapeutic serum to treat adult COVID-19 patients. The new treatment, based on the therapeutic serum, was jointly developed by researchers from Argentinian laboratories, universities, and government health and science agencies. It was one of the projects selected following a public call for initiatives against COVID-19 organized by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation; the National Agency for the Promotion of Research, Technological Development, and Innovation; and the National Scientific and Technical Research Council. The Ministry posted about the research on its official webpage in June 2020, and clinical trials started in July 2020.
According to the study’s researchers, this passive immunotherapy treatment was one of the most promising strategies to lower the impact and mortality levels of COVID-19. As a passive immunization treatment, it involves the administration of antibodies to patients against the infectious agent. Unlike vaccines, which allow a person to produce antibodies preemptively, this drug is administered when a patient is already infected.
The approval of this treatment was based on the positive results of the clinical trials, which showed reduced mortality levels in 45% of severe COVID-19 cases. In addition, ICU cases were reduced by 24% and the need for mechanical respiratory assistance was reduced by 36%, compared with the control group who received a placebo. The clinical study was implemented in Argentina at a national level and evaluated the security and efficacy of the drug in 242 adults (ages 18 to 79 years old) with moderate to severe COVID-19. The approval of the treatment was widely publicized in Argentina as well as in other countries, including Spain.
In December 2020, Mr. Fernando Peirano, President of the National Agency for the Promotion of Research, Technological Development, and Innovation within the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation, posted on Facebook the news on the approval of the COVID-19 treatment. According to another post a few days later, his publication was removed by Facebook because it infringed its community standards. In particular, he stated that his original post was considered a piece of misinformation because, although already approved by ANMAT, the treatment he mentioned had not been approved by the FDA.
In his latest post on this issue, Mr. Peirano held that the removal was unacceptable since Facebook should take into account that the government agencies involved in the research are prestigious and rigorous, and that the company should implement a global perspective. Additionally, a few specialists from academia and civil society in Argentina stated that the removal was “a case of private censorship” by Facebook.
Currently, Facebook includes community standards on misinformation about health during public health emergencies in its Transparency Center.
Mr. Peirano complained about Facebook considering the post “fake news.” However, based on the information he provided, and on Facebook’s Community Guidelines on false news and misinformation, the platform might have labeled the post as misinformation. According to the Community Standards, Facebook does not remove false news.
According to a later post by Mr. Peirano in the same thread of the complaint, he had a conversation with a representative from the Facebook South Cone’s policy team, who apologized for the error, and then the original post reappeared on his feed.
Although there have been removals due to misinformation posted by public officials—including a few presidents—in Latin America as well as in the U.S., this case involves additional complexities. For instance, in March 2020, Facebook removed a video posted by Mr. Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, in which he claimed that “hydroxychloroquine is working in all places.” At the time Mr. Bolsonaro shared the video, the drug was not approved as an effective treatment for COVID-19, and Facebook decided that the post was a piece of misinformation that could lead to physical harm. Unlike Mr. Bolsonaro’s case, the content of Mr. Peirano’s post was related to a development already authorized by a public health agency in charge of approving the use of drugs and treatments in Argentina.
Currently, although Facebook’s Community Standards state that “we identify public health emergencies in partnership with global and local health authorities,” it is not clear how that relationship would play out in a case such as Mr. Peirano’s.
Additionally, it is worth noting that the removal of Mr. Peirano’s post was only covered by Argentine press outlets. Regarding the study, only one post in English by a government agency could be found online, as well as a scientific paper published in 2020 and a few pieces about it in 2021. Thus, in these kind of cases, it might become more complex for English-speaking teams to investigate any incidents, their specific context, and the challenges implied.
- How can companies check the veracity of public health statements around the globe? What are the additional difficulties regarding non-English speaking countries?
- What might be effective and scalable ways for government agencies to inform platforms about the veracity of publications?
- How can companies improve their relationships and communications with government agencies to prevent these kinds of removals from happening?
- Should platforms take into consideration that the author of a publication on a public health issue is a public official? Should it make any difference if a government official posts from a personal account?
- What alternatives to removal do platforms have for misinformation cases? Should they make any kind of exception in the particular case of public health?
- What is the relevance to this case of Facebook having an office in Argentina? How might local offices interact with public officials?
- What are the pros and cons of using artificial intelligence (AI) tools to solve these kind of cases? Which should be the role of fact checkers in these kind of cases?
- What are the challenges of investigating content moderation issues when posts are not in English and incidents are not covered by English-language press outlets?
Considerations for policymakers:
- Should platforms be responsible for checking public health contents with agencies around the world? If so, when should they do it and why?
Written by Maia Levy Daniel, August 2022.