According to a Sunday Telegraph report a newly appointed UK law commissioner, Prof Penney Lewis, is considering whether the government should criminalize posting vaccine critical information on Social Media. Lewis, who is of US origin, was appointed last August soon after the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, spoke of clamping down on vaccine criticism on social media. The report states:
"In her first interview since taking up the role, Prof Penney Lewis revealed she is considering whether laws should be amended to “lower the threshold” for posting false information online that endangers lives."
The issue is fraught with ambiguity because well-researched opinion can often conflict with government dogma. As I wrote in a letter 'An appeal to authority is not the same as an appeal to knowledge' to BMJ on-line last year:
"I read the article by Martin McKee and John Middleton... with dismay, and ask what sense there can be in the fundamental attitude that all opinion favorable to vaccine products is correct (apparently by virtue of being favorable) and all opinion unfavorable to vaccine products malicious. The world they describe is very far from one I am familiar with. In the world I see people share bona fide information on-line, obtained from official sources, scientific articles, Patient Information Leaflets etc. And by ordinary standards they have a right: these are materials which belong in the public domain. I have never encountered anything on the web which plausibly could be identified as state misinformation or espionage about vaccine (it may occur in some territory of cyberspace which I have never visited): what we are talking about by and large is material which is well sourced, but not necessarily favorable to the industry and its apologists. Most troubling is that it is impossible to verify McKee and Middleton's claims that people are spreading false information, let alone deliberately. As with anything there must be some level of error but I am very far from sure that this is the main problem: what I see is people pasting and linking to materials of genuine concern, and which is not being addressed by our governments or officials. However much they may want to marginalise such data under the rubric "the benefits greatly outweigh the risks" or even the grandiose "vaccines are safe" a lot of it is not trivial..."
I added in a subsequent letter: "One thing I would point out here is how slippery are such terms as “disinformation” and “misinformation”, shifting the issue of whether something is true or not (which is complex) to whether it is politically convenient". We are always being told that information is "misinformation", which is no better than Orwellian doublespeak. As Heidi Larson of the vaccine Confidence Project argued at the WHO vaccine safety conference in December 2019 (last session around 1.35)
"There's nothing illegal about these questions but they see doubt...but the challenge for some of these tech companies and even for others who are trying to clean up the misinformation our problem is as we have heard in the last 48 hours that there's not anything a 100% and what actually legally without creating a censorship thing can we absolutely say this is misinformation because we have a lot of ambiguity in the safety field and we have to come to terms with that..."
Also relevant is the letter of a United Nations official David Kaye on the subject of censorship in his letter to David Zuckerberg (1 May 2019):
"For background, it is my responsibility as the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, under Human Rights Council resolution 34/18, to evaluate how governments, non-state actors and companies protect and promote everyone’s right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas worldwide. I report to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, conduct official country missions, and communicate regularly with governments, civil society and private industry. Digital rights lie at the center of much of this work, with my formal reporting to the UN often focusing on the obligations of governments to ensure protection of rights online and the concomitant responsibilities of companies...Even though Facebook does not make laws, the general principles of legality should nevertheless guide Facebook’s development of its rules and policies. In the context of its response to vaccine misinformation, for example, these principles would at least require Facebook to provide more information about how it defines “vaccine misinformation,” the processes it has developed for flagging such content, and the types of consultations it conducted in developing these measures and with whom it consulted. These are also the kinds of considerations that the Board, to provide genuine oversight, should be equipped to assess in reviewing appeals of content decisions. "
It is my submission that people, politicians, officials, journalists, academics and often even scientists who complain about vaccine "misinformation" on-line avoid addressing the detail and substance of what is being posted on Facebook (which actually Larson has not done), and on the rare occasions where they do they get it hopelessly wrong. I append my own article from last May.
By John Stone
"Jonathan Ashworth in his one specific example of social media misinformation has almost certainly misunderstood what he is reading. The cases he was reading about were almost certainly in the US where the Hep B vaccine is administered on the day of birth. Given that he himself seems horrified by the idea should not people be allowed to talk about it?"
(My comment in The Times, London)
Jonathan Ashworth, British Labour Party Spokesman on Health and Social Care, finds the idea of vaccinating an infant on the day of birth repugnant. He wrote in a Times of London editorial yesterday:
"The anti-vaccination content I’ve been able to find on Facebook in just a matter of minutes has been eye-opening. There appears to be a deep distrust in these closed groups of both the medical community and governments.
"I’ve found posts from terrified parents asking for advice on how to make sure their newborn babies aren’t taken away from them shortly after birth to be vaccinated.
"Other posts completely misinform the public about the science behind vaccinations. It’s why Tom Watson has called for a legally enforceable duty of care to be placed on these firms backed by hefty fines."
It is of course impossible know whether the other posts he read and felt challenged by were genuinely misinforming or whether he was just briefed to find them so, but in this instance what is almost certainly being referred to is the US practice of administering the Hepatis B vaccine to infants at birth, and it is quite interesting that he finds the idea - this does not happen in British hospitals - repugnant.
On a similar note I wrote to André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour, Cass Business School (University of London)
Prof Andre Spicer
about his article last Friday in the Guardian(so far no reply):
Dear Prof Spicer,
I checked out this paper by Chiou and Tucker you linked to in your Guardian article yesterday
The nearest that they ever get to providing evidence of “fake news” p.8-9 fig 2, is saying a website misrepresented an article by exaggerating an associated risk of vaccines with neurological-psychological disorders. It doesn’t reproduce the “fake news” article and doesn’t link to the study they say has been misrepresented (which is also not in the bibliography) and has not as far as I can see been misrepresented at all (if I have identified it correctly). It contains very troubling information.
They also cite Beatrice Lorenzin as a credible source (p.9) who in 2015 told Italians that 270 children had died in London in a recent measles outbreak (a bare-faced invention/lie).
So, no single piece of evidence of “fake news”, just algorithms for classifying possibly inconvenient data and fair comment as fake. I commented on the risks of this to the DCMS committee inquiry into Fake News.
If this is the best they (Chiou & Tucker) can do there is a problem. They haven’t documented any misinformation at all, and the rest, frankly, is ad hominem.
Spicer is the recent author of a volume called Business Bullshit.
John Stone is UK and European Editor of Age of Autism