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The fine line between fake news and freedom of speech

King’s Social Journal
Eva Carrillo Roas

BA Social Sciences student, School of Education, Communication & Society, King's College London

18 May 2022

With confusion and chaos comes fake news. How should we manage videos spread on social media containing false information about Covid-19 vaccines? In this post, the author looks at the video published by osteopath Dr. Carrie Madej, where she claims that coronavirus vaccines can alter your DNA. While censorship can be efficient in stopping the spread of such videos, transparency from the government and the vaccine companies could solve the problem of mistrust.

The coronavirus vaccines are designed to make us into genetically modified organisms.– Dr Carrie Madej

Despite fake news being around for a long time, some academics argue that we have entered a post-truth era, where media creators compel readers to believe something despite evidence against it. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been constantly bombarded with fake news. The lack of knowledge on the virus created a perfect environment for fake news and conspiracy theories to flourish, as confusion and mistrust increased. Therefore, it is no surprise that videos such as Madej's become viral and affect so many people.

Madej is an osteopath that uploaded a video on YouTube in June 2020, arguing that Covid-19 vaccines will alter the recipients' DNA. This video went viral, gaining over 300,000 views on YouTube, and being spread over other platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp.

Understanding fake news – What factors contribute to the rise of fake news/conspiracies?

The rise and advance of technology has undoubtedly changed the way society works and how media is reproduced. The decrease of traditional media networks (such as newspapers) and the simultaneous increase of social media has played a huge role in the rise of conspiracy theories.

Social media platforms such as Twitter were designed for everyone (in theory) to have a space to share and upload whatever they want (with some guidelines). And although this has led to incredible things, such as the rise of digital activism and social movements, such as #MeToo, it also created a space where misleading information can be shared by anyone at a rapid speed.

The danger of fake news shared on social media is the absence of fact-checking and proof-reading which other media platforms such as newspapers have to go through (although not always).

When thinking of Madej’s video, we can see that although the biological facts that she gives are not wrong, the conclusions and links she makes have not been proven to be correct, for example, she uses the explanation of genetically modified food to raise the question: “what if this can be done to humans?”.

McIntyre argues that another factor contributing to the increase of conspiracy theories is the eroding trust in science that we can see, for example in climate change deniers. However, Madej’s approach is very interesting, as she is using science to prove her point, instead of completely disregarding it. Also, taking into consideration that she is a doctor, this is particularly dangerous as it gives her credibility and persuades viewers that wouldn’t normally tend to fall for “fake news”.

Is censorship the way forward?

Social media companies such as Facebook have been very active in trying to combat misleading information. Between March and October 2020, Facebook removed more than 12 million posts containing misinformation about Covid-19. But, is censorship the best way to deal with fake news and conspiracy theories?

After Madej's video went viral, social media companies such as YouTube and Facebook deleted it off their platforms to stop the spread of it (although one can still find it when searching). And even though censorship can be effective in stopping the spread of this information, I believe it also brings to question issues of freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is a huge part of our human and civil rights, but to what extent is something freedom of speech? Is it someone’s right to speak freely, even if they are spreading lies?

Thinking back to Madej's video, I believe that arguing that these are just simple “opinions” is dangerous. Lies and manipulation of facts have direct effects on real people. People deciding not to get the vaccine could make others ill. Thus, the line should be drawn when someone’s right to freedom of speech comes in hand with someone getting hurt.

On the other hand, censorship does not get to the root of the problem: the mistrust in the government and Covid-19 vaccine producers. Censorship only silences the believers of conspiracy theories and gives them more reasons to believe in them as “Why would they delete it if it wasn’t true?”.

This mistrust has been built throughout the decades, as governments have done horrible things before in the name of science such as the Tuskegee experiment. Hence, it is no surprise that people have mistrust in governments when it wasn’t so long ago that similar unimaginable things happened.

As Pomerantsev argues, I believe that the most effective way to combat misleading information in media is through political and scientific transparency from the governments and the Covid-19 vaccine producers. Through this, one can build back the trust that has been eroding for decades and decrease the creation of misleading information around Covid-19, as fake news are often an outcome of ignorance.

Whether this is utopian or not is another debate, but one has to mention that this approach has started to prove successful as media companies such as the BBC created an online section that debunks conspiracy theories such as Madej's through scientific transparency.

References

BBC News. (n.d.). Reality Check News - BBC News. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/reality_check [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].

Carmichael, F. and Goodman, J. (2020). Vaccine rumours debunked: Microchips, “altered DNA” and more. BBC News. [online] 15 Nov. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/54893437 [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].

Fox, C.S. and Saunders, J. (2020). Media Ethics, Free Speech, And The Requirements Of Democracy. Chapter: Fake News and the Limits of Freedom of Speech. S.L.: Routledge.

Givens, C. (2020). Perspective | The key to combating conspiracy theories about coronavirus vaccines. Washington Post. [online] Available at:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/02/01/key-combatting-conspiracy theories-lies-about-coronavirus-vaccines/ [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].

Goodman, J. and Carmichael, F. (2020). Coronavirus: False and misleading claims about vaccines debunked. BBC News. [online] 25 Jul. Available at:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/53525002 [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].

Mcintyre, L.C. (2018). Post-Truth. Mit Press.

Me Too (2018). Me Too Movement. [online] Me Too Movement. Available at: https://metoomvmt.org/ [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].

Nix, E. (2019). Tuskegee Experiment: The Infamous Syphilis Study. [online] HISTORY. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/the-infamous-40-year-tuskegee-study [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].

Pomerantsev, P. (2019). To Unreality—and Beyond. Journal of Design and Science, [online] (6). Available at: https://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/ic90uta1/release/4

Smith, A. (2020). Facebook to ban anti-vaxx conspiracy theories. [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and tech/covid-vaccine-facebook-conspiracy-ban-b1765703.html [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].

Spangler, T. (2020). YouTube Bans COVID-19 Vaccine Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation. [online] Variety. Available at:

https://variety.com/2020/digital/news/youtube-bans-covid-vaccine-conspiracy theories-misinformation-1234804376/ [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].

www.youtube.com. (2020). URGENT INFORMATION ON COVID VACC1NES BY DR. CARRIE MADEJ. [online] Available at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBvY9x2Nma0&t=391s [Accessed 12 Apr. 2021].

Disclaimer: This blog and its content do not represent King's or the School of Education, Communication & Society, nor any of the academics who teach on the BA Social Sciences.

King’s Social Journal

This blog is led by students from the BA Social Sciences, in King's School of Education, Communication & Society. It aims to analyse pressing issues that society faces today. These will…

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