In the first half of 2021, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists found that only 40% of women offered a vaccine for Covid-19 had accepted it. The reason? They were waiting for further, or in some cases, more concrete evidence to reassure them that it was safe for them and their unborn baby.
This was despite NHS guidance outlining that the vaccines were not only safe, but that you’re at higher risk of getting seriously ill from Covid-19 if you’re pregnant. Mixed messages about the safety of vaccines spread on social media has done serious and irreparable damage. By the time it reached October 2021, 1 in 5 of the most critically ill Covid patients were unvaccinated pregnant women.
The misinformation we see on social media ends up being repeated outside of online spaces. A little over a year after we saw so many critically ill pregnant women in our hospitals, Full Fact, a charity of fact checkers and campaigners fighting bad information, had to intervene after an MP suggested that mRNA vaccines are not recommended for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
But the problem doesn’t stop at maternal care, which is just one example of how bad information about health can cause serious harm, and even cost lives. Supporters getting in touch with Full Fact this year told us about the pain of losing loved ones due to the misinformation surrounding Covid-19, and about the helplessness they felt as they watched them get sucked into conspiracy theories and misinformation about the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.
This isn’t isolated to the pandemic; misinformation spreads into all aspects of health and healthcare. This month alone, we have had to fact check multiple misleading claims about Strep A, as well as the bizarre idea that cancer can be cured by lemons.
The evidence is clear – bad information regarding our health has the potential to be deadly. And yet, our government has decided to abandon the hard lessons of the pandemic, taking the provisions which could help tackle health misinformation out of the Online Safety Bill.
What is the Government proposing?
Every day at Full Fact we see how misinformation repeated time and time again online becomes harder to challenge. Once false claims are made and circulated, misinformation bleeds into our discourse, politics, and corrupts people’s trust in genuine, good information.
In the Online Safety Bill, the Government is now proposing to just leave it up to platforms to decide whether they have a policy on tackling health misinformation in their terms of service, and then leave them to it as long as they apply their policies consistently. But why should an internet company be the one to decide what kind of misinformation could cause serious harm, instead of Parliament or an independent regulator? Questions like this, with implications for freedom of expression as well as public safety, should be put to open, democratic debate.
The Government’s latest changes to the Bill leave us all vulnerable. Its proposals mean we could very well see a race to the bottom on the terms of service as platforms seek to give themselves maximum flexibility to minimise their risk of breach, with harmful misinformation flourishing.
Twitter’s recent sudden decision to no longer enforce its policy on misleading information around Covid-19 highlights the problem. Previously, misleading information about Covid-19 could be labelled with corrective information, and tweets that were severely harmful could be deleted. Now, unannounced to the platform’s users, this misinformation is being allowed to spread.
Health-related misinformation and disinformation undermines public health. The Government knows this and should recommit to including health misinformation in the scope of the Bill, as it had been until only weeks ago. Platforms must be required to have a clear policy on dealing with harmful, false and misleading health information in their terms of service which doesn’t resort to simply censoring or deleting content.
Decisions about freedom of expression and health misinformation are now being left solely up to social media platforms. But we have already seen with Twitter why this doesn’t work. That’s why Full Fact is calling on parliamentarians to challenge the Government on its decision to renege on a promise to include protections for health misinformation in the Online Safety Bill.
If the Online Safety Bill means our freedom of expression is at risk while dangerous health misinformation is allowed to spread rampant, surely it’s failed in its objective in making the UK the safest place to be online?
By Glen Tarman, Head of Policy and Advocacy at Full Fact