BISMARCK — In an attempt to curb the spread of misinformation, the North Dakota Department of Health announced Monday, Oct. 25, that social media users will no longer be able to comment on the agency's posts.

Starting Tuesday, the comment sections on the department's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube pages will be disabled, though private message inboxes will remain open, the agency wrote in a social media post. The department said the move aimed at preventing the circulation of false information "will be applied to all posts, and not be specific to any particular topic."

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the comment sections of the agency's Facebook posts have served as an unchecked battleground for North Dakotans arguing about the disease, and later, the vaccine developed to mitigate it. The department's posts about COVID-19 and inoculations have often generated hundreds of comments, including many that promote misleading, debunked or outright fraudulent information.

Just a few hours before the department's announcement, a Facebook user falsely claimed in the comment section of a post about COVID-19 that the mRNA spike proteins in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines destroy the human immune system. On a post last week, one user appended a video of an anti-vaccination commentator misinterpreting federal data about deaths following COVID-19 vaccinations, while earlier in the day, another user erroneously called the vaccine a “bioweapon” that injects HIV into the bloodstream.

North Dakota has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, and health officials in the state have for months blamed the spread of misinformation and "fake news" on social media as one of the primary causes of vaccine skepticism.

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Facebook and other social media outlets have come under fire from health experts and some mostly liberal politicians who say the platforms fail to suppress vaccine-related misinformation, though many conservative politicians and commentators have argued the websites shouldn't censor content. Followers of the department's Facebook page were similarly divided Monday: some applauded the decision to eliminate comments, while others accused the agency of silencing dissenters to pro-vaccine messaging.