North Dakota health agency cuts comments on social media

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Department of Health on Tuesday switched off comments on its social media accounts, saying it was doing so to combat the spread of misinformation.

The agency said in a statement Monday that its social media accounts “will continue to be a source for sharing verified public health information to help North Dakotans make informed decisions.” The comment ban “will be applied to all posts, and not be specific to any particular topic,” the agency said.

U.S. health officials have said misinformation on social media platforms has caused some to resist getting vaccinated against the coronavirus. A similar approach to North Dakota’s has been taken elsewhere, with the Mississippi State Department of Health announcing in July it was blocking comments on its Facebook posts that relate to COVID-19 because of misinformation.

North Dakota’s health department is a cabinet-level agency and its head serves at the discretion of the governor. Mike Nowatzki, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum’s spokesman, referred questions about the ban to the health department.

Agency spokeswoman Marie Moe said her department consulted with Mississippi officials before cutting comments. Officials there defended the move and said it didn’t have an impact on agency messaging, Moe said.

North Dakota has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S., with just over 60% of the population completing their doses despite the widespread availability of shots.

Moe said people trying to dispute the state’s messaging on vaccinations was a big part of the ban, but people also began challenging guidance from the health department, including precautions for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

“People started discrediting information about everything we posted,” Moe said. “Our comment section was no longer a constructive dialogue.”

“There was lots of arguing back and forth,” she said. “We had people share stories of their loss of a loved one due COVID, and then others demanding to see the death certificate.”

“I think it discouraged people from coming to our site,” Moe said.

The posts on the North Dakota health department’s Facebook page immediately following the announcement were mixed, with some people applauding the agency, while others complained it was a free speech infringement that discounted other viewpoints.

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