Few countries have suffered worse from the ravages of HIV/AIDS than South Africa. From 1999-2008, its suffering was made much worse by the irrational beliefs of its president, Thabo Mbeki, who denied in the face of all evidence that HIV caused AIDS and drew up policies accordingly. He appointed a health minister who advocated the use of herbal remedies for treating HIV-related health problems such as garlic, beetroot, and lemon juice. This was not a success. Something like 350,000 people died as a result of that government’s action.
We have seen similar problems arise with some of the discussions around Covid-19. We have been treated to a succession of lockdown-sceptics torturing data to help construct an argument so that they can do exactly what they please. Undaunted by the repeated falsifications of their predictions, they keep churning them out, re-engineering their interpretations and magically coming to the same conclusions.
For the umpteenth time, they are claiming that herd immunity is being reached. Given that the US has had proportionately far more cases and yet the case rate (and death rate) still seems to be rising there vertiginously, this seems a remarkably optimistic argument.
Others have claimed that the focus on Covid-19 has led to other treatments being postponed and that policy is thus causing deaths indirectly (not noting that it would be hard for other treatments to be undertaken if the wards are filled with Covid-19 patients and the hospital staff are laid up with Covid-19). Most disgracefully, some commentators have warned that the current policy may lead to more suicides – there is no evidence that suicide rates have increased in the UK since March (the limited evidence that we have from April to June hints at the opposite, actually), but there is plenty of evidence that talk about suicide acts as a cue in the suggestible.
The anti-lockdown, anti-mask brigade are likely to have been responsible for many deaths, having persuaded enough people that doing something uncongenial is unnecessary to spread the virus further.
Health misinformation costs lives. This raises important questions around freedom of speech: the gap between words and action is particularly small here, and actions have consequences. Careless talk really does cost lives here. So how freely should controversialists be allowed to pump out dodgy or plain wrong views to the public?
Broadcast media are regulated in Britain, and Ofcom issued regular guidance around this area earlier in the year. One of the cases it investigated, relating to Eamonn Holmes’ wild claims on This Morning that 5G was linked to Covid-19, gives a neat summary of how Ofcom sees the role for free speech here:
“Unproven claims and theories can be included and discussed in programmes, but if these carry the risk of potential harm to the audience – which they are highly likely to do at such a sensitive time – broadcasters must ensure they provide adequate protection for the audience. This could include, for example, significant challenge or further context”
It is far from clear that some broadcasters are offering adequate challenge or context to those putting forward controversial views. Indeed some broadcasters are actively promoting these views via their twitter accounts: the link to the most recent herd immunity claim above comes from Talk Radio’s own twitter feed, with no counterbalancing view or challenge being linked to.
And this illustrates a weakness of the current regulatory regime. The different media are subject to different regulatory regimes. When it comes to the internet, regulation is minimal. Some platforms, such as Twitter, choose to flag posts that overstep marks that they have determined for themselves, but it’s all a bit haphazard. In practice, misinformation and wild speculation online goes more or less unchecked. Indeed, the wilder the claim, the more likely the click. Algorithms don’t usually distinguish between approving retweets and hate clicks, so bad behaviour gets rewarded.
Should we limit the range of views that people might hold? Of course not. We should, however, try to ensure that views that may, if acted upon, lead to direct public health hazards are directly challenged wherever possible and come with suitable warnings.
The biggest challenge of the pandemic lies ahead, getting as many people as possible to get vaccinated. This is going to be a stiff challenge given the natural reticence of many to try brand new preventative medical treatments whose regulatory approval has been rushed through. During the vaccination programme, there will be large numbers of people who fall ill and some will die, and it will be natural for friends and relatives to draw causation from correlations. Nonsensical objections based on pseudo-science – and there will be many of these – will only make things worse.
The government, obviously, can help by not seeking to make untrue partisan points about, for example, Brexit in relation to the vaccine that serve only to alienate. The media has a heavy burden too, not to tout irresponsibly conspiracy theories for clicks and views.
And in the longer term, the whole question of media regulation needs to be looked at again, with the aim of establishing a structure that promotes useful information and penalises misinformation. We’re not there yet, that’s for sure.