Censoring ‘Fake’ Health and Science
In the past, social media companies have made large efforts to remove ‘fake news’ from their sites, in order to discourage the spread and reduce the effect of misinformation. But with new science and health challenges arriving such as the coronavirus pandemic, it is becoming increasingly harder for users to distinguish between fact and fiction, especially when it comes to science and health.
In relation to the coronavirus, often those who chose not to become vaccinated, when stating their reasons why they had made the decision to remain unvaccinated, repeated reasoning from information that they had discovered online. Although this is not the case for all anti-vaccers, it is apparent that in a nation where were have access to the NHS24 website allowing us to self diagnose ourselves with mystery diseases that we do not have, that it can be hard to filter through information surrounding health and science to get to the real answers. Some misinformation regarding the coronavirus has even previously led to vandalism and violence and often this information was not found on dark corners of the web but on Facebook and other similar sites, therefore it was suggested by The Royal Society that social media companies should not remove that is legal but harmful, and instead they should alter their technology in order to combat radicalist views on specific science and health topic going ‘viral’- creating harmful ideas and preventing money being made by people who advocate these harmful ideologies, despite them not being illegal.
Although removing content from social media or news platforms could be seen as censorship, scientists and researchers who rely on their evidence to be published for others to view in order for phenomena to appear, believe that this proposed removal of fake scientific and health information could be damaging to their careers if the technology is not reliable. The Center for Counting Digital Hate believes that there are many incidents- past, present and future- which would benefit from the removal of content that is deemed harmful due its obvious inaccuracy. This emphasises the importance of developing a balance between individual freedom and placing restrictions on what people can say, particularly online.
It is believed that when it comes to the public being distrusting with regards to new science or health discussions, even despite their backing from all the relevant organisations, it is due to the lack of trust in businesses and institutions. For example, those who are distrusting of the current government within their country due to opposing political views, are more likely to ignore advice provided by government funded or supported businesses, or from the government itself in relation to the topics of science and health. The Royal Society further emphasised that the removing content may exacerbate these feelings of mistrust and has the potential to create a bigger problem.
Despite the royal society’s concerns, there is very little evidence to believe that removing content drives people further into the internet to delve deeper into harmful opinions and beliefs. In fact, science misinformation is not something which developed during the time of Covid, there are many accounts from the past which showcase the damage that misinformation or ‘fake science news’ can have on individuals and society as a whole. For example, in the early 2000s, after an academic paper, which was later discounted, expressed the belief that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism in children. And before that came the flood of misinformation surrounding HIV beginning in the 1980s, which led to harmful actions taken particularly against the LGBTQ+ community, and some would even say that there is still misinformation floating around with regards to HIV in 2022.
However, what has changed is the speed at which this ‘fake news’ travels and the large number of people that have access to it. One solution suggested to combat the problem of misinformation spreading, is rather than removing the content completely, to make it hard to find and therefore share online. This way it is less likely that it will appear on the social media feeds of a considerable amount of people, who have the power, thanks to technology, to spread false information with the click of a button. This solution is favoured by many, as they believe that this still allows for the freedom of speech, but reduces the audience that any ‘fake news’ may reach, therefore further reducing the chance of harmful scientific information from becoming viral at the expense of overall public health or the creation of hysteria.
Often a large percentage of misinformation is developed from the appropriation of genuine and evidence-based data and research- making it even harder to separate fact from fiction. As well as being potentially damaging to scientific research and the reputations of those who conduct it, misinterpretation of real data, can be harmful in combating problems which occur in science and health. For example, in relation to the current Coronavirus pandemic, fact-checking was required when data relating to supposed high numbers of harm were said to have come from the vaccine. The worry that came as a result of the spread of the misinterpretation of the data produced by the scientific bodies that were rolling out the vaccine program, derived from the false information spreading and misleading content.
When it comes to the online world, we have the ability to reach any single piece of information with a quick search, however it has become more evident over the last few years in particular, how damaging and harmful the spread of ‘fake news’ or even the misinterpretation of real science and health data and research, can be on public life. I am sure that a lot more people would have received their covid vaccine or their MMR jab, had it not been for the spread of misinformation regarding these particular topics. Although this is a generalisation and there is no real way of knowing the changes that would occur if had not been for the spread of ‘fake news’ in relation to both these health scares, it can assumed that by reducing the amount of false information available online with regards to the topics of science and health- which ultimately form life or death scenarios- through safe-guarding measures- which also enable the freedom of speech- that those who wish to express an opinion (solicited or not) feel that they are not being silenced, but allows for the true emergence of trusted, proven and most importantly correct information from which real opinions can then be formed. However, the importance lies in getting the factual information out there through the correct technology, to allow the information to become a strong force in the development of personal opinions regarding specific health and science topics.