Oversight Board upholds Facebook decision: Case 2021-008-FB-FBR
The Oversight Board has upheld Facebook’s decision to leave up a post by a state-level medical council in Brazil which claimed that lockdowns are ineffective and had been condemned by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Board found that Facebook’s decision to keep the content on the platform was consistent with its content policies. The Board found that the content contained some inaccurate information which raises concerns considering the severity of the pandemic in Brazil and the council’s status as a public institution. However, the Board found that the content did not create a risk of imminent harm and should, therefore, stay on the platform. Finally, the Board emphasized the importance of measures other than removal to counter the spread of COVID-19 misinformation to be adopted under certain circumstances, such as those in this case.
About the case
In March 2021, the Facebook page of a state-level medical council in Brazil posted a picture of a written notice on measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, entitled “Public note against lockdown.”
The notice claims that lockdowns are ineffective, against fundamental rights in the Constitution and condemned by the WHO. It includes an alleged quote from Dr. David Nabarro, a WHO special envoy for COVID-19, stating that "the lockdown does not save lives and makes poor people much poorer." The notice claims that the Brazilian state of Amazonas had an increase in deaths and hospital admissions after lockdown as evidence of the failure of lockdown restrictions. The notice claims that lockdowns would lead to greater mental disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and economic damage, amongst other things. It concludes that effective preventative measures against COVID-19 include education campaigns about hygiene, masks, social distancing, vaccination and government monitoring – but never lockdowns.
The page has over 10,000 followers. The content was viewed around 32,000 times and shared around 270 times. No users reported the content. Facebook took no action against the content and referred the case to the Board. The content remains on the platform.
The Board concluded that Facebook’s decision to keep the content on the platform was consistent with its content policies. The Violence and Incitement Community Standard prohibits content which contains misinformation that contributes to the risk of imminent violence or physical harm. The Help Center article linked from the Standard states that Facebook determines if information is false based on the opinion of public health authorities. The Board found that the content contained some inaccurate information which raises concerns considering the severity of the pandemic in Brazil and the council’s status as a public institution. However, the Board found that the content did not create a risk of imminent harm.
The statement that the WHO condemned lockdowns and the quote attributed to Dr. David Nabarro are not fully accurate. Dr. Nabarro did not say that “lockdown does not save lives,” but instead noted that the WHO did “not advocate lockdowns as a primary means of control of this virus” and that they have the consequence of “making poor people an awful lot poorer.” The WHO has said that “lockdowns are not sustainable solutions because of their significant economic, social broader health impacts. However, during the #COVID19 pandemic there’ve been times when restrictions were necessary and there may be other times in the future.”
The Board notes Facebook’s argument that the threshold of “imminent harm” was not met because the WHO and other health experts advised the company to “remove claims advocating against specific health practices, such as social distancing,” but not claims advocating against lockdowns. Despite confirming that it has been in communication with Brazil’s national public health authority, Facebook said it does not take into account local context when defining the threshold of imminent harm for enforcement of the policy on misinformation and harm.
The Board believes that Facebook should take into consideration local context when assessing the risk of imminent physical harm and the fact that the content was shared by a public institution, which has a duty to provide reliable information. However, the Board still finds that the post does not meet the threshold of imminent harm in this case, despite the severity of the pandemic in Brazil, because the post emphasized the importance of other measures to counter the spread of COVID-19 – including social distancing.
Facebook disclosed that the post was eligible for fact-checking, but that fact-checking partners did not assess this content. The Board notes that Facebook’s approach failed to provide additional context to content that may endanger people’s trust in public information about COVID-19, and that Facebook should prioritize sending potential health misinformation from public authorities to fact-checking partners.
The Board notes that Facebook has previously stated that content from politicians is not eligible for fact-checking, but its policies do not make clear eligibility criteria for other users, such as pages or accounts administered by public institutions.
The Oversight Board’s decision
The Oversight Board upholds Facebook's decision to keep the content on the platform.
In a policy advisory statement, the Board recommends that Facebook:
- Implement the Board’s recommendation from case decision 2020-006-FB-FBR for Facebook to adopt less intrusive measures where content related to COVID-19 distorts the advice of international health authorities and where a potential for physical harm is identified but is not imminent.
- Prioritize the fact-checking of content flagged as health misinformation, taking into consideration the local context.
- Provide more transparency within the False News Community Standard regarding when content is eligible for fact-checking, including whether public institutions' accounts are subject to fact-checking.
For further information:
To read the full case decision click here.
To read a synopsis of public comments for this case, please click the attachment below.