Should spreading anti-vaxxer misinformation be criminalised?

By Harriet Piercy

Published Feb 24, 2021 at 10:00 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

The end of mass hibernation is in sight. However you feel about this is valid in itself, although it will not stop it from happening. We will soon roam free like we all want to, we will holiday to our hearts content, hug strangers, and hold hands with our loved ones. This is what we all want, am I not right? Why then, are we arguing about what will give us that freedom, the vaccine?

Scientists from all corners of the world have been pulling actual magic out of seemingly nowhere, and regardless of tragic outcomes, humanity has seriously shown up to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Having been cooped indoors, scared at times, bored at others, and frustrated overall, we are now so close to this battle ending with, arguably, one of the greatest scientific achievements of our time; a vaccine. There is however, another battle in parallel to this—a social media-fueled storm of mis-and-dis-information.

This is nothing new, but the recent news of mass COVID-19 vaccination has triggered an influx of conspiracy conundrum. Anti-vaxxers are in overdrive. As stated by the British Medical Association (BMA), the WHO and UN warned of the consequences of this ‘infodemic’ being left unchecked. The WHO has also listed vaccination hesitancy as one of the top 10 health threats.

For example, studies show that measles vaccinations saved 23 million lives, but misinformation was linked to the disease’s resurgence. Spreading falsehoods can also be lucrative, as some people may benefit from spreading conspiracy theories (or selling COVID-19 ‘cures’).

Professor of demography and sociology Melinda Mills wrote in The BMJ that “Simple, emotive, and compelling disinformation can sow doubt and distrust by exploiting perceived U turns in scientific knowledge or by presenting government or public health decisions as establishment failures. ‘Merchandising doubt’ is effective, from denying a link between cigarettes and cancer to questioning climate change or national election results. Doubt destabilises, polarises, and erodes trust.” So should it be criminalised, like the repercussive threats that conspiracy theories, intentionally or unintentionally, pose?

Deliberate intent to spread malicious vaccine disinformation could result in preventable deaths, which should technically be considered criminal. But it’s not that straightforward. According to Mills, “Laws against spreading fake news and health disinformation have been passed in France, Germany, Malaysia, Russia, and Singapore. As of 2018, Germany required social media platforms to remove hate speech or fake information within 24 hours, threatening maximum fines of €50m.”

Mills continued that “Social media platforms give the public a voice to exchange information, and the most common sources of vaccine information are often non-experts. But social media companies have argued that they are not publishers and have minimal responsibility to vet posts, although they have agreed to conduct some editorial decisions and fact checking.”

Contrary to this however, senior researcher of infectious disease control and vaccinations Jonas Sivelä wrote that “criminalising anti-vaccine misinformation could make it grow even stronger,” and that “We should be cautious when we talk about misinformation and disinformation, as there is a difference: misinformation is defined as ‘incorrect or misleading information’; disinformation as false information deliberately spread with the purpose of influencing public opinion. The crucial difference is the intention to deceive.”

How mis-and-disinformation should be stopped is an enormously murky area, however one that stands as true: “Misinformation costs lives,” a WHO and UN joint statement said. “Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunisation campaigns will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive.”

In a survey conducted by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI in July 2020, 22 per cent of 16 to 34 year olds said that they were unlikely to have a COVID-19 vaccine or definitely wouldn’t, compared with 11 per cent of 55 to 75 year olds. Doctor David Strain, who plays a lead role in the BMA’s work on COVID, said that “With COVID, we’re seeing patients in their 40s and 50s dying and young patients, people in their 20s and 30s getting long COVID. We want to get COVID wiped out or near zero, so we have to make this work.”

The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) estimated that the largest English language anti-vaxxer accounts on social media have a global following of 59.2 million people, which is enough to compromise a future vaccine’s ability to contain the disease. Social psychologist Sander van der Linden told the BMA that “Fake news can travel faster and lodge itself deeper than the truth.” Which in my opinion, is true—since the beginning of time we have dissected, analysed and unearthed the truth, often without realising that there is always room for improvement.

We, by nature, have an innate distrust for the darkness (metaphorically and physically speaking). It is a mode for survival, which has been heavily relied upon in the past, and which is now in contradiction with the state of pace that darkness is being ‘cast into light’ by science and discovery, through invention and problem solving—in other words, understanding.

This contradiction may be down to the possibility that ‘elitist’ innovation is fundamentally moving too fast for the majority of its users to keep pace. Now, we are forced to trust in something that is far beyond our own individual development or understanding. But modes of survival have been changing, ever so slightly, for many many years. I did not discover electricity, thankfully, yet now I can use it and manipulate it by understanding it. Medically, I can buy an over the counter headache cure, and blissfully go about my day without having had the stress of concocting the cure itself. More so though, I can trust it. A vaccine for COVID-19 is a year young, yes, but the science and study behind vaccination has been ticking over since the first vaccine was invented in 1798.

What I want to leave in question here, is that whatever your views on how or why this COVID-19 virus came about—it has, it’s done—but would governments, scientists or ‘people in power’ that are apparently to blame on social media, really want to damage the future of humanity, the economy and society in its entirety with a faulty mass vaccination, including themselves? Probably not.

So, with this in mind, I’m just wondering here… what do anti-vaxxers do for a headache? If not swallow a pill of contradiction?

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