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Should spreading anti-vaxxer misinformation be criminalised?

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?

Facebook is finally banning anti-vaxxer misinformation

Vaccine misinformation on Facebook is nothing new—remember in 2018 when parents in the US knowingly withheld their children from getting vaccinated against measles, which eventually led to an outbreak of the disease throughout the country? Now, almost a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Facebook is finally taking action against vaccine misinformation by banning it entirely from the platform.

The ban won’t just apply to COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. Other posts promoting wider (and false) theories claiming that vaccines cause autism or that measles can’t kill people are no longer allowed on Facebook. On top of that, the platform also announced its plans to encourage Americans to get vaccinated by directing users to accurate information about when exactly they’re eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine and how to find an available dose.

The move, as simple as it may sound, is bound to have a crucial impact on the halt of vaccine misinformation. As reported by Vox, “With nearly 3 billion users, Facebook is one of the most influential social media networks in the world.” As vaccinations start rolling out around the world, Facebook remains one of the internet’s biggest hotspots for fake news. As a result, when it comes to coronavirus, many are concerned that misinformation could exacerbate some people’s refusal or hesitancy to get vaccinated.

In a statement published on Monday, 8 February, the company further explained that these changes are part of what it’s calling the “largest worldwide campaign” to promote authoritative information about COVID-19 vaccinations. Before its rollout, the effort was developed in consultation with health authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO), and will include elevating reputable information from trustworthy organisations like the United Nations (UN) and various health ministries.

A list of banned vaccine claims, which was formed with the help of health authorities, is also available. “The new approach seems similar to Facebook’s US voter registration initiative, which the company claims helped sign up several million people to participate in the November election,” adds Vox.

“We’ve helped health authorities reach billions of people with accurate information and supported health and economic relief efforts,” wrote Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook’s head of health, on Monday. “But there’s still a long road ahead, and in 2021 we’re focused on supporting health leaders and public officials in their work to vaccinate billions of people against Covid-19.”

Now here comes the ‘but’—just because Facebook is saying its guidelines about vaccine misinformation are changing doesn’t mean that vaccine misinformation won’t end up on the platform anyway. In order to truly tackle anti-vaxxer propaganda, the company will need to put some serious effort into enforcing its new rules.

So far, Facebook is yet to confirm whether it will be increasing its investment in content moderation, given its increased scope for vaccine misinformation. What’s for sure, however, is that expanding its enforcement will require time to train Facebook’s content moderators and systems.

Still, this announcement comes as a pleasant surprise for many considering that Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly defended principles of free expression to justify the platform’s inaction on many occasions. Zuckerberg now says that the company will be paying particular attention to pages, groups, and accounts on both Facebook and Instagram (which Facebook owns) that regularly share vaccine misinformation, and may remove them entirely. It will also adjust search algorithms to reduce the prominence of anti-vaxxer content.

Back in November 2020, experts warned that social media platforms would be walking a delicate line when it comes to the global vaccine effort. “While social networks should promote accurate information about Covid-19 inoculations,” they said, “platforms must also leave room for people to express honest questions about these relatively new vaccines.”

Like other enforcement actions Facebook has taken on everything ranging from QAnon and Frazzledrip conspiracy theories to incitements of violence posted by Donald Trump, many say the company’s move is too little too late for its cause. For years now, Facebook has been repeatedly flagged by researchers as a platform where misleading information about vaccines has proliferated. The pushback against COVID-19 vaccines is bound to be on an even bigger scale. Let’s just hope Facebook’s new commitment will be further enforced, not just proclaimed.