Medical Technology

BMJ Slams Facebook as ‘incompetent’ Fact-Check of Vaccine Article

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Editors at The BMJ have released an urgent appeal to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the parent company Meta in relation to a recent “fact-check” on the medical trade journal’s report regarding controversial Pfizer vaccine trial practices.

According to an open letter written by outgoing BMJeditor-in-chief Fiona Godlee and the new editor-in chief Kamran Abbasi, Facebook hired a third-party contractor to assess the report’s findings. The result was “inaccurate and unprofessional” conclusions that “should concern anyone who relies upon the BMJ sources for reliable medical information.”

The article that was in question addressed issues with integrity of data at Pfizer clinical trial sites for vaccines. According to the letter, Ventavia, a former employee of Pfizer’s main vaccine trial research group, contacted The BMJ in September of 2020 and “began providing…dozens” of documents, photos audio recordings, and emails. According to the company’s website, Ventavia “played a significant role in [COVID-19 recruitment for the COVID-19 clinical trial” and “has been recognized by Pfizer for their contribution to the vaccine trials.”

It was previously reported that the whistle-blower was a former regional director who was involved in Pfizer’s vaccine trials in Texas during the fall of 2020. She says that the company fabricated data, blinded patients, used untrained vaccinators, and failed to follow-up on adverse events that occurred in Pfizer’s pivotal Phase III trial.

The BMJ offered images that “showed needles being discarded in plastic bags instead of a sharps box box” and another that “showed vaccine packaging materials with trial participants’ identification numbers written on them left open, potentially blinding participants.”

Despite informing Ventavia that she was concerned, her concerns were not addressed. She made a complaint to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and was subsequently dismissed the next day. Godlee and Abbasi claim that the FDA did not investigate the allegations against the director, even though evidence showed “a number of flawed clinical trial research methods occurring at Ventavia that could have a negative impact on patient safety and data integrity.”

Article labeled “Hoax” without pointing out any errors

The BMJ employed an investigative reporter in order to examine the clinical trial claims. The results were published as an article on November 2, 2021 after the article “went through…the usual high-level legal and editorial oversight and peer review,” according to the journal.

On the 10th of November the journal began receiving complaints from readers who were not able to share the article on social media. Others had their posts flagged with warnings, such as “missing context…independent fact-checkers say this information could mislead people.” Administrators of different Facebook groups were informed that posts with the article were “partly incorrect.”

Readers were informed that Facebook contractor Lead Stories performed the article’s “fact check.” Lead Stories “An award-winning innovative fact-checking and debunking website” and “an active participant in Facebook’s collaboration with third party fact checkers” — the latter granting them “access” to content that has been flagged by Facebook’s systems and its users as potentially false. According to the company they make the decision “independently whether we’d like to fact-check it or not.”

Lead Stories claims that they can “enter our fact checks into a Facebook tool, and Facebook then uses my data to stop the spread of false information on its platform.” Lead Stories claims that although the contractor is paid, they have no control over how fact checks are conducted or the conclusions we draw.

Both editors question the validity of the fact check performed by Lead Stories, as it failed to provide any “assertions of fact” regarding the specifics of what The BMJ did not know. The editors also object to Lead Stories’ use of the term “hoax alert” in its URL when it published the story.

The BMJ reached out to Lead Stories, Facebook, and also to Facebook, and they responded with a letter. But Lead Stories refused to “change anything regarding their article or take any action that resulted in Facebook flagging of our article.” Facebook has not responded to requests to remove the “fact-checking” label and to allow readers to share the article on “Facebook’s” platform.

Godlee and Abbasi expressed concerns that other “high quality information providers have been impacted by Meta’s incompetence in its fact checking regime.” Last month, Instagram censored Cochrane the world’s leading provider of systematic medical reviews that are independent. Instagram is owned by Meta the company that owns it, barred users from using the hashtag Cochrane because the organization “repeatedly posted…false content on COVID-19 or vaccines.” Cochrane denied the accusations.

While “fact checking is a standard of good journalism for a long time,” say the editors, Meta has “apparently delegated responsibility to people incompetent in carrying out this crucial task.” They urge Meta to rethink its fact-checking strategy, and to review the reasons that led to the error.

Medscape Medical News tried to contact Meta for comment but did not receive a response at press time.

Steph is a freelance journalist from the Midwest who specializes in healthcare law.

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