A father whose 6-year-old son died was flooded with anti-vaxxer harassment. When a commenter baselessly claimed he killed his son, Facebook said he could 'hide' the comment 'if he didn't like it.'
Billy Ball lost his 6-year-old son due to a rare medical condition in January.
Inexplicably, anti-vaxxers began to claim online that the death was due to the COVID vaccine.
Facebook and Twitter often took no action when the comments were reported, Ball said.
When Billy Ball lost his 6-year-old son in January after an accident brought on by a rare medical condition, Ball posted his son's obituary on Twitter and started a fundraiser in the child's name to raise money for an art program at his son's neighborhood school.
The responses, at first, were mostly kind. Many people donated, Ball wrote in The Atlantic. But the father's social media feeds soon devolved into a cesspool of conspiracy theorists baselessly claiming that Ball killed his son by getting him vaccinated for COVID-19. And Twitter and Facebook often offered little to no recourse, he said.
In one case, Facebook determined that a comment in which a user mocked and accused Ball of killing his son did not violate community guidelines and declined to remove the comment.
"While we've decided not to take this comment down, we understand that you don't like it," a message from Facebook support read. "We recommend that you hide the comment or unfollow, unfriend or block the person who posted it."
"It felt like you were talking to a wall," Ball told Insider, regarding his experience reporting comments that flooded his social media accounts.
In the past year, unexpected deaths or health complications have become a dog whistle for anti-vaxxers who believe or suggest the COVID-19 vaccine is the cause behind these medical episodes. The claims have even spawned a pseudo-documentary.
Meta and Twitter CEO Elon Musk did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Insider received an automated response from Twitter.
In the days since he shared the fundraiser online, Ball, who is a managing editor at Cardinal & Pine newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina, said that he must have received thousands of comments on Twitter accusing him of being responsible for his son's death. Facebook was a little more manageable — around seven to eight posts a day, Ball estimates. Either way, the mourning father could not keep up with all the comments.
"Losing a child is a brutal reminder that nothing is fair in this world," Ball wrote in The Atlantic. "The harassment made me feel like there was nothing good in it either."
Ball enlisted his close friends to help manage his social media pages and report the comments while he focused on his son's funeral.
The majority of posts had a common message: that Ball somehow killed his son by getting him vaccinated. But the tone varied.
"Some people would go: 'I'm so sorry that you lost your son, you must be feeling tremendous guilt having him killed with the COVID vaccine,'" Ball told Insider. "And then there were some who were mocking. They were like, 'Laugh out loud.' I'll never forget that one. 'Laugh out loud. You killed your boy. How do you feel?'"
Mostly, the platforms didn't respond to the reports. There were a few cases where Twitter accounts were banned. Ball said that he doesn't know what kind of comments may have gotten users booted off the platform because, in those instances, his friends reported the posts.
Facebook's response befuddled Ball. One Facebook user managed to find his private account and commented on a random post that was a few years old.
"(The post) wasn't about my son or about COVID or anything," he said. "They found one post they could get on ... and just started mocking me and saying that I killed my son."
Ball reported the comment and, on March 2, received a message from Facebook support that told him that the comment did not violate "Community Standards."
Ball was surprised that Facebook appeared to tolerate harassment on its platform. Although he didn't expect a ban, the father hoped that there would be some kind of penalization on the user, either by temporarily locking the account or at the very least letting the user know that the behavior is not tolerated on the platform.
Because Facebook decided to keep the comment up, it's unclear if the user would have received any warning or message that the comment was reported.
Ball decided to publish his story with The Atlantic after he learned he wasn't the only parent who lost their child and was subsequently harassed online.
ABC News reported how online conspiracy theorists have clung to "Died suddenly" posts to push a claim that a child, celebrity, or athlete died unexpectedly because of the COVID-19 shot.
An Ohio mother was suddenly inundated with messages, calling her a "murderer," after her six-year-old daughter Anastasia died earlier this year. The child died unexpectedly but had prior health problems.
When Buffalo Bills' safety Damar Hamlin suddenly collapsed in the middle of the game, anti-vaxxers, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, immediately suggested that the incident had something to do with the COVID-19 vaccine.
Ball initially didn't think to share his online experience. But after learning that other parents who have lost their children were being attacked online, the father wanted to find a way to let them know that they were not alone.
"I would have been reluctant to say anything at all if I was this outlier case," Ball said. "But realizing I wasn't, I was like, 'We need to say that this is happening, and we need to say it loud.'"
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