Authored by Stephen Holden
Central to the spread of misinformation and disinformation is to legitimise the misleading or harmful, and to lend credibility to the inaccurate or incorrect. The veneer of integrity gives the perception of trustworthiness, and in pursuit of this a host of social media channels and independent websites push certain narratives, and in many cases, share pseudoscience or misrepresented findings.
People may be more likely to share information from sources they believe are backed by real and meaningful research, however, a cursory search often highlights the lack of scientific grounding, or publisher expertise in interpreting the relevant data and hold a qualified opinion.
One problem occurs however, when misinformation and disinformation is spread by those who do hold relevant qualifications, or should be trusted to understand the science that underpins the issues at hand.
By example, in Italy the physician and surgeon Dr Mariano Amici has made a number of significant claims regarding the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine, rates of vaccine injuries, the negative long term of the vaccine on the immune system, and has misrepresented scientific data to provide legitimacy to his unfounded claims, going so far as to refuse to accept the vaccine himself resulting in removal of his medical licence. Following appeal, the highest Italian administrative court found his points to be without merit or factual basis. Notwithstanding the suspension he continued to spread harmful content on his website while wearing a doctor's coat, and referring to his scientific and medical experiences.
Similarly, in New Zealand three doctors, Dr Peter Canaday, Dr Emanuel Garcia, and Dr Matthew Shelton, had their practicing certificates suspended for spreading COVID-19 and vaccination misinformation, while in the UK a nurse who denied the existence of COVID-19 and encouraged people to not get vaccinated, Kay Shemirani, was struck off the nursing register in order to avoid risk of public harm.
Problematically, not only has the harm already occurred by those abusing their position to legitimise the spread of harmful misinformation and disinformation, but despite being removed from medical registers and losing the ability to practice, there remains no effective means to prevent the continuation of spreading existing harmful narratives, or emerging ones.
While there exist important responsibilities to freedom of expression, it is necessary to balance these rights against corresponding harms caused by spreading misinformation and disinformation, especially when provided by experts who may be relied upon to provide accurate information.