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opinion

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta

Increasingly, anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers are framing their battle against sense and science as noble and courageous. They are fighting for your rights, they say, and they characterize all strategies countering misinformation as part of a pernicious cancel culture aimed at silencing their cause.

But being shown that you are wrong isn’t censorship. You don’t have a constitutional right to lie or spread misinformation on social media. And not getting the same amount of air time as health experts to explore every wacky and harmful COVID treatment idea isn’t a freedom-of-speech issue.

This may seem obvious to most, but the “this is about my rights!” misinformation strategy seems to be gaining steam. A recent study by Angus Reid found that “personal freedom” was tied with “health concerns” as the main reason to remain unvaccinated. And the big stars of the anti-vaccine movement (the NFL’s Aaron Rodgers, for example) and their enablers (that’s you, Joe Rogan) can often be heard complaining about the alleged silencing of “alternative” points of view.

Of course, there is a deep irony in protesting your apparent cancellation while appearing on a national prime-time Fox News television show, à la disgraced American virologist Robert Malone, who has promulgated a number of theories that have shown to be false. In fact, we know that far from being silenced, the misinformation that these individuals push continues to spread. And, alas, we also know that framing any correction to the misinformation as repression or conspiracy has been an effective way for anti-vaxxers to keep spreading the bunk while sidestepping the science.

It can’t be emphasized enough that the core messages COVID deniers are pushing are simply wrong. Their positions haven’t been silenced. On the contrary, they have been considered, thoroughly researched, and found to be incorrect. (At this point in the pandemic, countering much of this nonsense can feel a bit like arguing that the Earth isn’t flat.)

A few facts to counter the falsehoods: The COVID vaccines work remarkably well, they do not cause infertility or change your DNA, and they haven’t resulted in millions of deaths. There is no good evidence that hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin are effective in the context of COVID treatment. Public-health authorities around the world have not been overestimating COVID deaths. The use of vaccines does not infringe the Nuremberg Code for human experimentation. And there is no evidence that effective therapies have been suppressed or ignored as part of a global conspiracy to prioritize vaccines.

The conspiracy theorists aren’t constructively questioning the science ­– which is what good scientists do daily ­– they are denying the science. To put an even finer point on it: those pushing misinformation about these topics are either wilfully ignoring the mountain of relevant evidence, or they are lying.

Giving air time to fear mongers and contrarians pushing lies about these kinds of topics doesn’t facilitate a constructive dialogue. It does harm, by both legitimizing the misinformation and creating an impression of false balance – that is, suggesting that such misinformation simply represents an opposing view that is of equal value and more credible than the evidence suggests.

Studies have shown that false balancing (sometimes called “bothsidesing”) can distort public perceptions of science and create the impression that there is less agreement among experts than there actually is. For example, within the biomedical community, there is really no debate on the value of COVID vaccines. A 2021 American Medical Association survey found that 96 per cent of physicians in the United States were fully vaccinated. But if you listen to the guests that Joe Rogan rolls out on his show, you’d get the impression there is a continuing discourse among doctors on whether or not to get the jab. Nope.

False balance can also have a direct effect on health behaviour and beliefs. A 2013 study from Cornell University, for example, found that false balance on the (totally untrue) idea that vaccines cause autism negatively affected vaccine intentions.

We should encourage media outlets to make editorial and programming decisions that minimize false balance and the visibility of harmful misinformation – especially since research has consistently shown that lies spread faster and further than the truth.

I am not saying that there aren’t significant legal and policy challenges associated with the battle against misinformation. Instead, we need to take care in how we respond to misinformation. Policies should be transparent, evidence-based, and applied in a manner that ensures that diverse perspectives can be heard and openly debated. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t comprehensively counter misinformation whenever it arises.

It isn’t noble or brave to spread harmful lies. And it isn’t wrong to try to minimize the effect of those lies.

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