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Friday, June 25, 2021
Edited by Ellen McCutchan with thanks to Sonam Thomas
This newsletter draws on our own resources and those of our colleagues within the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), of which RMIT ABC Fact Check is a member.

Good morning,

In this week's CoronaCheck, we take a look at a video shared to TikTok which the company says does not violate its community guidelines, despite it featuring COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.

We also address rumours that four British Airways pilots died as a result of coronavirus vaccination, and fact check comments made by Vladimir Putin in the wake of his meeting with Joe Biden.

Vaccine misinformation ticks away on TikTok

ABC News: Michael Clements

CoronaCheck reported last week on a video shared on the encrypted messaging application Telegram which showed anti-vaccine activists harassing people queuing at a COVID-19 vaccination centre in Melbourne.

Now, a similar video emerging from the UK and displayed on TikTok's algorithm-curated video feed in Australia has called the social media platform's COVID-19 misinformation enforcement into question.

The video depicts prominent UK-based conspiracy theorist Louise Hampton using a megaphone to spruik misleading figures from the UK government's ‘Yellow Card' scheme in an attempt to change the minds of people lining up to receive their COVID jab.

As previously reported by Fact Check, the UK scheme does not reflect actual confirmed instances of side effects linked to the vaccine and relies on "voluntary submissions" which can be made by anyone, including members of the public, via its website.

But in the video, Ms Hampton falsely conflates deaths and other unconfirmed adverse side effects reported to the scheme as directly linked to the COVID-19 vaccine.

The video is also accompanied by hashtags referencing conspiracy theories that deny the existence of COVID-19 and compare vaccinations to the Holocaust.

The video was flagged by Fact Check as misinformation via TikTok's internal reporting function.

However, TikTok's report found the video "did not violate community guidelines". That's despite the platform's guidelines specifically prohibiting "content that's false or misleading, including misinformation related to COVID-19, vaccines, and anti-vaccine disinformation more broadly."

At the time of publication, the video remained live and had been viewed close to 130,000 times and shared by more than 2000 users. 

Ana Santos Rutschman, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Saint Louis' Center for Health Law Studies, told Fact Check the video violated TikTok's community guidelines, despite the figures quoted by Ms Hampton being derived from an official source.

"This is a more nuanced case than the average vaccine misinformation occurrence on social media, but it is still misinformation and, as such, violates TikTok's policy," she said. 

Professor Rutschman acknowledged there were some technical difficulties that may cause delays in screening for disinformation but added: "I don't think mainstream social media are doing everything they can in this regard.

"With vaccination rates going down in many countries even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the continued propagation of vaccine misinformation in social media remains both a short- and long-term problem."

Fact Check attempted to contact TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, for comment but had not received a response prior to publication. 

No, British Airways is not in 'crisis talks' with the UK government over pilot deaths


A number of websites, social media posts and viral messages are suggesting that between three and seven British Airways pilots have died as a result of COVID-19 vaccination, prompting the airline to begin "crisis talks" with the UK government.

In an audio recording shared widely online and in private messaging groups, an unidentified man says "things are getting crazy".

He then claimed that, according to a friend who is a British Airways pilot, three pilots at the airline had died over seven days.

"The first two guys were in their 40s and 50s; this guy, mid-30s, perfectly fit, no underlying conditions, gets his second jab and he's dead within days of the second jab, exactly the same as the first two," the man says in the recording, which has been heard by Fact Check.

"Because of this, BA [British Airways] are now in crisis talks with the government about whether to allow vaccinated pilots to fly."

Other social media posts and websites suggested that four or seven pilots had died as a result of the vaccine.

In part, the speculation appears to have been fuelled by a photo showing four condolence books and framed images on display in a British Airways lounge.

But according to British Airways, while four pilots had recently passed away, there was "no truth whatsoever" to social media speculation that the deaths were linked.

The company also told fact checkers at Reuters that none of the deaths were linked to vaccines, but did confirm the authenticity of the condolence books.

Meanwhile, claims that the airline was in "crisis talks" with the UK government were shot down by the British Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

"We have not been made aware of deaths of BA pilots after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and have not had discussions with BA or other airlines about preventing pilots from flying after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine," Dr Sarah Branch, the director of vigilance and risk management of medicines for the MHRA, told fact checkers at Full Fact.

"There are currently no restrictions on aviation or other industries and activities post vaccination."

At least one British Airways pilot died recently as a result of COVID-19, according to reports in the British Press.

While it is not known if he was one of the four deaths confirmed by British Airways, the Daily Mail reported that pilot Nicholas Synnott died after a 15-month-long battle with the disease, which included a 243-day stay in a US hospital. 

From Geneva (via Moscow)

Following his meeting last week with US President Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin fronted the media at a news conference in Geneva where he spoke on a wide range of topics — from cyberattacks to the January 6 riots at the US Capitol.

According to fact checkers at AP, the Russian president made a number of inaccurate statements during the event.

Mr Putin claimed that his imprisoned political rival Alexei Navalny had ignored "the demand of the law" to go abroad for medical treatment.

As AP pointed out, however, Mr Navalny "left the country in a coma" and could not therefore have left by choice.

In another embellishment, Mr Putin suggested that "most of the cyberattacks in the world are carried out from the cyber realm of the United States" with Canada, two Latin American countries and Great Britain rounding out the Russian president's top five offenders.

"This portrayal defies the record," the fact checkers retorted.

"Russian-based digital malfeasance is well established by US officials and security researchers alike.

"The most damaging cyberattacks on record have come either from state-backed Russian hackers or Russian-speaking ransomware criminals who operate with impunity in Russia and allied nations."

Finally, AP found that allegations levelled by Mr Putin that dozens of insurrectionists were quietly arrested after the January 6 riot and imprisoned on "unclear" legal grounds was incorrect.

"Each of the suspects charged by the Justice Department was arrested based on a criminal complaint signed by a federal judge and requiring investigators prove they have probable cause the person committed a federal crime, or an indictment from a grand jury," the fact checkers said.

In other news

No, the WHO did not propose a ban on alcohol for women of child-bearing age

The World Health Organisation (WHO) faced a backlash this week when news headlines declared the organisation was recommending that women of child-bearing age be banned from drinking alcohol.

"WHO accused of sexism after saying women of child-bearing age should not drink alcohol," a headline from the UK-based Telegraph read.

Meanwhile, US network NBC opined that "the WHO alcohol-pregnancy warning for child-bearing women overlooks men, as usual".

In Australia, reported that the WHO's recommendation had prompted "outrage".

But a close reading of the document cited as the source for the news articles indicates that no such ban was ever suggested by the WHO.

The reference to "child-bearing women" is made in the context of raising awareness "among decision-makers and the general public about the risks and harms associated with alcohol consumption".

In fact, the 33-page first draft of the ‘Global alcohol action plan 2022-2030' mentions women of child-bearing age only once, in amongst a list of other vulnerable populations for whom "appropriate attention" should be given in order to prevent drinking.

A spokesman for the WHO conceded in an interview with Nine publications that the guidance was poorly written.

"It was just meant as the period where you are potentially carrying children and this is not generalising to all women in that age," Dag Rekve, the WHO's policy adviser on alcohol, told the Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

"It can be interpreted that we are saying that women of child-bearing age should not drink alcohol and is a completely wrong interpretation and we will make sure that it's not interpreted like that."

Graphic of the week

An analysis by the Washington Post has found that coronavirus infections are dropping in locations where people have been vaccinated and rising in those where they are not.

This graph shows how states with a lower proportion of vaccinated residents have a higher-than-average COVID-19 case rate, and vice versa.

"Experts worry that unvaccinated people are falling into a false sense of security as more transmissible variants can rapidly spread in areas with a high concentration of unvaccinated people who have abandoned masking and social distancing," the Post reported.

A note to our readers

From this week, CoronaCheck will officially become a product of RMIT FactLab, the newly established research partner of RMIT ABC Fact Check. The editor and reporting processes will remain the same and, for readers, nothing will change. If you'd like to opt-out of receiving future emails you can do so here.

Got a fact that needs checking? Tweet us @ABCFactCheck or send us an email at

This newsletter is supported by funding from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas and the International Fact-Checking Network.
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