An Australian government senator has shared content from an anti-vaccination leader who previously called for the execution of Jacinda Ardern, while posting a deluge of stories from other people about vaccine side-effects he admits he can’t verify.
Queensland Liberal party senator Gerard Rennick has seen his Facebook following explode by more than 500% in the past three months since he began sharing testimonials of people claiming to have suffered severe side-effects after receiving Covid-19 vaccines.
Delivered without context and in most cases without the person’s full name, the posts include the claims of people who say they developed severe conditions not linked to any known vaccine side-effect, including appendicitis, a stutter, and severe neurological conditions.
Many of the claims shared by Rennick are disputed by expert medical bodies such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration. In a number of cases the person whose story the Liberal senator shared reveals a pre-existing vaccine hesitancy or aversion.
“Thanks [Victorian premier] Dan Andrews your mandated vaccine that I had to have in order to work and support my family resulted in this,” wrote one man, whose story Rennick shared and who claimed to have developed appendicitis after receiving the vaccine.
In one case, Rennick shared multiple posts by a woman from New South Wales who said she had developed blood clots “all through my legs, stomach and through both lungs” after receiving the Pfizer vaccine.
“I never wanted to get [the vaccine] because I was genuinely scared of running the risk. I wish I had never gotten it & I could have my healthy body back,” the woman wrote in a widely-shared post on social media.
While rare cases of clotting have been associated with some vaccines including AstraZeneca, the TGA told the Guardian there had been no reported cases associated with people who received the Pfizer vaccine in Australia.
In another post four days ago, Rennick posted a letter penned by a “retired GP” from New Zealand railing against the Medical Council of New Zealand and falsely linking vaccines with still births.
The retired GP, who the Guardian has not named to avoid boosting her profile, accused New Zealand’s top doctors of having “blood on your hands” and called for them to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
When sharing the letter, Rennick said retired GPs “have a lot of credibility” because they could no longer be sacked for speaking out.
Four weeks before Rennick’s post, the woman said Ardern, the prime minister of Australia’s ally and closest neighbour New Zealand, would be executed for her government’s vaccination program.
The doctor called for Ardern to stand trial for crimes against humanity and said “this woman is going to get her own l-e-t-h-a-l injection when the international criminal court sits for Nuremberg two”, according to New Zealand news outlet Stuff.
In an earlier post in August, the same woman wrote: “Crimes against humanity deserve the sentence of execution… Jacinda Chris Ashley and the media had better beware [sic].”
Rennick deleted the post after being contacted by the Guardian, conceding he had realised it to be “fake”.
“I try to verify this stuff, I thought it seemed OK,” he said about the post. “I’m a bit annoyed about it.”
His post had been shared 1,600 times before it was deleted.
Rennick said he was unaware of the woman’s previous comments about Ardern, and conceded he “should have” checked the source of the letter before sharing it.
Amid increasing concern about the contribution elected MPs in Australia have made to the spread of misinformation, Rennick admitted he wasn’t sure whether the stories from other people he posted were all true.
“I had it sent to me from someone else. Like I said, I’m not going to get everything 100% right,” he said.
“Did you get all of your school work right when you were at school?”
But he claimed he did not have a duty to verify the claims or to provide context about the low overall risk associated with Covid vaccination because of the misinformation labels Facebook frequently attaches to his posts.
“I cant ask for their medical records,” he told the Guardian on Monday.
“Is it 100% accurate? I can’t guarantee that and I’ve never said that, and that’s why I say it’s someone’s story. It’s not my story, I’m telling someones else’s story.”
Rennick, along with fellow Liberal senator Alex Antic, threatened to withhold his vote from the government unless it passed an anti-vaccine mandate bill. Rennick, Antic, and three other government senators split with the Coalition and voted for the bill, but it ultimately failed in the Senate.
Facebook following explodes
Rennick’s posts against vaccination have coincided with a massive boost to his Facebook following. He had just 4,068 followers this time last year, but his following has since surged to more than 79,000 while engagement with his posts is also much higher.
He has so far had more than 756,000 interactions on his posts this month, including roughly 200,000 shares. He was getting about 1,900 interactions per month in November 2020.
But the senator denied he was sharing the posts to increase his public profile, saying he was “moved” by people’s stories.
“I’m not doing it for that at all, you can make that accusation [but] I’m not winning any friends doing this, I’m copping lots of pile on in the media, I’m just moved by the fact people have had serious [issues],” he said.
The explosion in his Facebook following poses serious questions about the company’s strategy for dealing with anti-vaccination content.
Facebook’s policy is to try to restrict the distribution of content that misleads or sensationalises vaccine side-effects, even where it doesn’t directly breach its other policies.
“Based on input from experts in health communication and related fields, we are also taking additional steps amid the pandemic to reduce the distribution of content that does not violate our policies but may present misleading or sensationalised information about vaccines in a way that would be likely to discourage vaccinations, as outlined in more detail below.”
Facebook has not removed any of Rennick’s posts.
Speaking generally about its policy, a spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s new company name, said it does not allow anyone “including public figures” to share misinformation about Covid-19 if it could lead to imminent physical harm. A spokesperson also said the company does not allow “misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines that have been debunked by public health experts”.
“Pages or accounts who repeatedly breach these rules will have restrictions placed on their page, and repeat offenders will be removed from Facebook”
Facebook has previously removed Craig Kelly’s page for breaching misinformation policies and has removed more than 20m pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram for containing misinformation.