Facebook versus The BMJ: when fact checking goes wrong

22 January, 2022

Citation and extracts from a BMJ feature article. Full text: https://www.bmj.com/content/376/bmj.o95

CITATION: Feature Medicine and the Media

Facebook versus The BMJ: when fact checking goes wrong

BMJ 2022; 376 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o95 (Published 19 January 2022)

Cite this as: BMJ 2022;376:o95


The BMJ has locked horns with Facebook and the gatekeepers of international fact checking after one of its investigations was wrongly labelled with “missing context” and censored on the world’s largest social network.

On 3 November Howard Kaplan, a retired dentist from Israel, posted a link to a BMJ investigation article in a private Facebook group. The investigation reported poor clinical trial research practices occurring at Ventavia, a contract research company helping to carry out the main Pfizer covid-19 vaccine trial.

The article brought in record traffic to bmj.com and was widely shared on Twitter, helping it achieve the second highest “Altmetric” score of all time across all biomedical publications. But a week after his posting Kaplan woke up to a message from Facebook...

“The Facebook Thought Police has issued me a dire warning,” he wrote in a new post. “Facebook’s ‘independent fact-checker’ doesn’t like the wording of the article by the BMJ. And if I don’t delete my post, they are threatening to make my posts less visible. Obviously, I will not delete my post . . . If it seems like I’ve disappeared for a while, you’ll know why.”

Kaplan was not the only Facebook user having problems. Soon, several BMJ readers were alerting the journal to Facebook’s censorship. Over the past two months the journal’s editorial staff have been navigating the opaque appeals process without success, and still today their investigation remains obscured on Facebook.

The experience has highlighted serious concerns about the “fact checking” being undertaken by third party providers on behalf of Facebook, specifically the lack of accountability and oversight of their actions, and the resulting censorship of information...

Kamran Abbasi, The BMJ’s editor in chief, said, “We should all be very worried that Facebook, a multibillion dollar company, is effectively censoring fully fact checked journalism that is raising legitimate concerns about the conduct of clinical trials. Facebook’s actions won’t stop The BMJ doing what is right, but the real question is: why is Facebook acting in this way? What is driving its world view? Is it ideology? Is it commercial interests? Is it incompetence? Users should be worried that, despite presenting itself as a neutral social media platform, Facebook is trying to control how people think under the guise of ‘fact checking.’”


Neil Pakenham-Walsh, HIFA Coordinator, neil@hifa.org www.hifa.org