Why you should be wary of the information presented in Craig Kelly's mass text messages

By RMIT ABC Fact Check
RMIT ABC Fact Check presents the latest debunked misinformation on COVID-19. (RMIT ABC Fact Check)

CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check's weekly email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

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CoronaCheck #82

In this week's CoronaCheck, we explain the vaccine data spotlighted by those unsolicited text messages from Craig Kelly.

We also debunk a viral fake media release from the NSW government, and bring you the latest on ivermectin, a drug touted as a COVID-19 cure despite little evidence that it works.

Why you should be wary of Craig Kelly's text messages

Many Australians received unsolicited text messages from Mr Kelly directing them to a report hosted on the United Australia Party website, which lacked context. (Source: Supplied)

Having recently announced his decision to join Clive Palmer's United Australia Party (UAP), federal MP Craig Kelly has begun his re-election campaign with a series of unsolicited text messages targeting thousands of Australians.

While Mr Kelly's first message attacked the Labor, Liberal and Greens parties, his most recent message, delivered to phones this week, provided a link to what was purportedly the "Australian Government's COVID-19 Adverse Events Report".

That link leads to a page on the UAP website featuring screenshots from a search conducted of the Therapeutic Goods Administration's Database of Adverse Event Notifications (DAEN), which lists all public reports of adverse events related to medicines (including vaccines) and medical devices used in Australia.

The screenshots show pages three to six of a 73-page list of adverse event notifications related to COVID-19 vaccines to August 7, with a link at the bottom of the webpage allowing users to download the full report (which has been incorrectly labelled as the "adverse event and death report").

The document linked to in Mr Kelly's text message was missing pages with key context, including a warning about using the data to make assessments of the safety of medicines. (Supplied)

Visible in the screenshots is a note from the TGA stating that "an adverse event report does not mean that the medicine is the cause of the adverse event".

Importantly, however, the four pages shown on the webpage do not include more substantive warnings around the database's limitations.

"The DAEN does not contain all known safety information about a particular medicine," the TGA notes on page two, which is not shown on the UAP webpage.

"Please do not make an assessment about the safety of a medicine based on the information in the DAEN."

Speaking to Fact Check, Mathew Marques, a lecturer in social psychology at La Trobe University specialising in public communication around scientific issues, said that the webpage presented "decontextualised screenshots" which cherry picked national health data.

But political communication is currently exempt from both the spam and privacy acts.

Given this "loophole", Dr Marques said it would be appropriate for the TGA to respond to these claims directed at the public through the mass text campaign.

On Wednesday, Triple J's Hack reported that the TGA was seeking advice on whether the UAP webpage containing the screenshots breached the law by using the TGA logo without permission.

According to a statement issued to Hack, the TGA said it was consulting with the Commonwealth on "whether the use of the TGA logo in this way potentially breaches both copyright legislation and the Criminal Code Act 1995".

The administration confirmed, however, that it was unable to take further action against the text messages.

"In this instance, the text messages and website do not appear to constitute advertising under the Act so no compliance action can be taken," a TGA spokesperson reportedly told Hack.

The TGA has previously taken aim at Mr Palmer's UAP when it said it was "seriously concerned about misleading information" in radio ads for the party.

No, NSW is not transitioning to a 'cashless society'

A media release supposedly issued by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian's office outlining a move to a "cashless society" by 2022 is fake, the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet has declared.

The NSW government has confirmed that this document, which has spread online, is not genuine. (Supplied)

The media release, shared widely on social media, wrongly suggests that the NSW government plans to make residents of the state transfer their money to a "virtual wallet" by mid-2022, which would then be used in lieu of cash for purchasing goods and services.

"Residents should be prepared to conduct transactions using a virtual currency, much like the digital currencies which have been successfully used in China," the release reads.

It goes on to claim NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet had previously noted China's success in "leading the world with cashless systems".

In an email to Fact Check, a spokesperson for the Department of Premier and Cabinet confirmed the media release was fake.

Fact Check has been unable to find any evidence of NSW government plans to implement a "virtual wallet" nor any public comments by Mr Perrottet referencing cashless payment systems in China.

There's still no compelling evidence for ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19

Despite intensifying global talk about the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin, Fact Check this week found there was no compelling evidence to demonstrate that it is safe to use in the treatment or prevention of COVID-19.

While early research showed promising signs for the drug, strong supporting evidence that ivermectin could work to treat or prevent COVID-19 has failed to materialise.

A review by the Cochrane Library — the "most rigorous interrogation and critical appraisal of the available evidence", according to one expert — concluded that the efficacy and safety of ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment was "uncertain".

"The completed studies are small and few are considered high quality," the reviewers noted, adding that several studies were underway that "may produce clearer answers in review updates".

"Overall, the reliable evidence available does not support the use of ivermectin for treatment or prevention of COVID‐19 outside of well‐designed randomised trials."

Regulators in Australia and overseas have not approved ivermectin for use against COVID-19 and have warned that the drug, which is commonly used to treat parasitic infections in both humans and animals, may endanger the health of those who take it.

Ivermectin's manufacturer, Merck, has also said it should not be used to treat or prevent COVID-19.

As to how it became the drug of the moment, Fact Check reported that support for ivermectin followed political divides, with some conservative commentators in the US going so far as to allege the cheap drug was being ignored in favour of more expensive vaccines.

A number of COVID-19 vaccines, meanwhile, have been granted provisional approval by the TGA for use in Australia following a "thorough and independent review" which found the vaccines "meet the high safety, efficacy and quality standards required for use in Australia".

"Vaccination against COVID-19 is the most effective way to reduce deaths and severe illness from infection," the TGA has said.

From Washington, D.C.

Claims from US senator Ted Cruz about immigrants being released with COVID-19 have been debunked by fact checkers. (AP: Manuel Balce Ceneta)

As Texas battles another surge of COVID-19 cases, a US senator for the state, Republican Ted Cruz, has blamed President Joe Biden's immigration policy for the outbreak.

"In the last several months, the Biden administration has released over 7,000 illegal aliens who were COVID positive just in one Texas city — in the city of McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley," the senator told Fox News in response to a question about data which showed cases were surging in states without mask mandates, such as Texas.

"Last week, the Biden administration released over 1,500 illegal aliens in McAllen who were COVID positive."

Fact checkers at PolitiFact this week found that claim to be false.

"Cruz's overall point — that migrants are fueling the current COVID surge — is not supported by data," the fact checkers said.

While a non-profit organisation in McAllen had recorded over 7,000 positive COVID-19 cases among migrants since February, most would have been placed in quarantine before being allowed to move throughout the US, according to PolitiFact.

Moreover, those 7,000 cases represented a positivity rate of 8 per cent among migrants released in McAllen, which is less than the state's average.

"Data shows that the distribution of COVID cases throughout the US corresponds more to low vaccination rates than migration patterns," PolitiFact concluded.

In other news: Labor claims wages fell ‘fastest in 20 years' in year to June 2021. Is that correct?

Wages growth in Australia has been sluggish for years, well before the pandemic hit the economy.

In a recent Facebook post, Federal Labor claimed that "under Scott Morrison real wages have fallen 2.1 per cent in 12 months, the fastest drop in wages in 20 years".

RMIT ABC Fact Check this week found that claim to be not the full story.

Real wages — that is, wages adjusted for inflation — were 2.1 per cent lower in the June quarter of 2021 compared to the June quarter of 2020, when calculated using headline figures for the consumer price index and the wage price index, both published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

This was indeed the sharpest annual fall recorded since June 2001, when real wages plunged 2.3 per cent following the introduction of the GST.

However, the steep decline in real wages over the year reflected the inflationary effect of two unusually large and temporary price increases, both reversing sharp declines a year earlier.

First, the cost of childcare returned to normal levels after a key pandemic response introduced in the June quarter of 2020 — free childcare — ended.

Second, fuel prices roared back from a record pandemic-induced drop that likewise occurred in the June quarter of 2020.

These two large and one-off price movements were significant enough to prompt the ABS to suggest that "underlying" measures of inflation should be considered as an alternative to the headline rate.

In particular, the bureau highlighted its "trimmed mean" inflation estimate, which slices abnormally large price changes from its calculations.

When this measure of inflation is applied, real wages in fact increased very slightly over the full year.

While still pointing to sluggish real wages growth, the annual decline by this measure was much less dire than application of the headline inflation figure — or the Labor Party's Facebook post — would suggest.

Edited by Ellen McCutchan, with thanks to Eiddwen Jeffery

Got a fact that needs checking? Tweet us @ABCFactCheck or send us an email at factcheck@rmit.edu.au

This newsletter is supported by funding from the Judith Nielson Institute for Journalism and Ideas (Judith Nielson Institute)

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