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Let free speech sunlight disinfect Covid misinformation

Opinion Piece

by Jonathan Ayling

Jonathan Ayling

The development of vaccines within 12 months of Covid-19 emerging is of historic significance, yet it has occurred at a time when many have lost faith in traditional institutions and officialdom.

Some are convinced that mass-vaccination is the final component alongside measures like mask mandates and lockdowns to implement a global totalitarian conspiracy. Others laugh out loud at that notion and eagerly found a way to skip the queue to acquire a vaccine. In the middle, many just have questions they want answered before getting vaccinated. Not everyone who has doubts is a tin-hat-wearing bumpkin — perhaps just nervous about how quickly the vaccine was developed or the motives of big pharma.

Whatever your stance, it should be patently obvious that shaming the other side into compliance is a hopeless expectation. While I myself am scheduled to get the vaccine, many intelligent and educated people now fall into the vaccine-hesitant camp. Shutting down their concerns goes no way towards changing their minds or bettering public health. The good news is that sunlight is the best disinfectant — free speech allows for bad ideas to be defeated because we get to know why they are bad.

Access to information is crucial in a pandemic. Kiwis have turned to the news media and social media to better understand this new enemy and gain insights into how best to protect themselves. But alongside verified information, they’ve been bombarded with stories from both sides that have either misinformed or disinformed them.

It has long been said that free speech allows for the truth to be discovered through a fierce competition of ideas. In a free marketplace of ideas, every idea has the opportunity to be considered against others. Individuals are then free to make up their own minds, thus facilitating the search for truth. But should misinformation be permitted to enter the marketplace? Surely by its very nature it sends us in the opposite direction we’d want to go on in our search for truth.

Fair enough, but if we decide that misinformation shouldn’t be permitted in the marketplace, how do we decide? Who gets to decide? Must the Government censor anything potentially false? Suppressing the flow of information requires the Government to act increasingly like the Chinese or Russian regimes. Not only is this something that anyone who relishes living in a free society naturally resists, but it’s counterproductive to winning the war of ideas. Measures to censor bad information only reassure the conspiratorially-minded that their “deep state” world view is the correct one.

Further, the Government doesn’t always get it right (or more particularly, is sometimes slow to internalise new information). Just last week, Yale researcher Dr Anne Wylie told Nine To Noon “Things that are just downright wrong are being said by the Prime Minister with regards to saliva testing, so misinformation amongst the Government prevails.” I’d incline towards saying i) even well-intentioned government is not foolproof; ii) Insofar as the vaccine hesitant are often suspicious of Government, moves to control misinformation may do more harm than good; especially as eradicating bad information (especially on social media) is vastly more difficult than eradicating a virus — and boy do we know we know how hard that is.

If the end-goal is convincing as many people as possible to get vaccinated, then we must end the stigmatisation and silencing of those who aren’t on board. Persuasion of the vaccine hesitant through reason and evidence will do far more to maximise the benefit of vaccination for our communities than ostracism and silencing.

Jonathan Ayling is the spokesperson for the Free Speech Union.

  1. John Porter says:

    Jonathan, now you’re talking!
    Very clear, coherent and convincing.
    Wish more contributions to GH were like this.

  2. Aimee Milne says:

    Nobody is silencing vaccine hesitant people. It’s perfectly normal to feel nervous or to have questions. The biggest concern are the grifters, who use freedom of speech as a shield to spread misinformation (to build their social media following, either for status or money, it doesn’t matter), and cause death or severe illness. If people are genuine in their concerns there are plenty of reliable sources of information and access to their own practice nurses or GPs. Unless you’re informing people with factual information on public health matters… free speech is a flimsy argument.

    1. Tim Stewart says:

      It seems Aimee has not digested what Jonathan Ayling is actually saying and continues her uncalled for attack on one and all that do not agree with her. Instead she assumes to know what each and every one is thinking / feeling and lumps them all together as in her previous columns – going so far as to use particularly nasty comments like ‘grifters’ – how lovely! – and certainly not the use of ‘reason and evidence’ that Jonathon called for. I would add empathy to the list of how to convince people to your cause. Aimee if you are the face of the ‘new’ left wing all I can say is God help us!

      1. Aimee Milne says:

        Empathy? How about some empathy for all the people who’ve lost family members to the Q/anti-vax cult. How about some empathy for people whose family members have died of Covid-19 because they were convinced by grifters not to vaccinate, or the poor souls with long Covid. How about some empathy for the doctors and nurses who’ve fought a viral war on the ground only to be called ‘traitors, murderers, shills’, while the bodies of the unvaccinated pile up.
        I love how right wingers get all wounded when a lefty gets in on the free speech action. As for attacks, since I began using free speech to voice my opinion I have been verbally abused and stalked by anti vaxxers, publicly doxxed, harassed (they’ve even targeted my family). So I’m not sure who is shutting who down?

        1. Tim Stewart says:

          Aimee, as per Jonathan Ayling’s timely essay on free speech – please try to use reason and evidence. Your non-factual assertion of people losing family members to a “the Q/Anti-vax cult” – (gee, two left-wing conspiracies for the price of one!) – lacks any proof and is yet another instance of left-wing ravings. Typically, left-wing ideologues invent a ‘monster’ theory, throw anyone they disagree with into it and then think that proves those people are less deserving of respect or consideration and must be dealt with harshly. Is the left-wing turning fascist? It certainly seems like it!

  3. Stacey Trompf says:

    I totally agree, well written.
    Some of the bullying and shaming things I have seen on social media (and in the media) are just disgusting.
    Comments like unvaccinated people should be denied treatment, that they are idiots, that they deserve to die, it’s just unbelievable. These comments come from well known people in the community and the health profession.
    No one should be bullied or shamed either way. It is no one’s business if they have had the jab or why they have made the choice they have.
    This whole debacle is definitely showing people’s true colours.
    They are shining bright for all to see.

    1. Aimee Milne says:

      Hi Stacey,
      You make a interesting point. There has been discussion around this. The thing about an overwhelmed health system is that unfortunately awful decisions have to be made. There are plenty of stories from overseas where the medical staff have to choose to save the most likely to survive because there are not enough resources or staff to save everyone. From what I’m reading and hearing from medical professionals, they’re putting very scarce resources towards the patients who are vaccinated because they’re more likely to survive. This is not a discriminatory decision, but a life-saving one. If you came across a car accident which person would you attend to first?

      Spare a thought for the people who have to make those decisions, based on other’s decisions to not vaccinate.

  4. Peter Jones says:

    Let free speech sunlight disinfect covid mis-information.
    Why allow this column and yet continue to censor free speech about covid?

    Footnote from Ed: Because free speech comes with responsibilities for a publisher, and a lot of what you try to say about Covid-19 does not even have a kernel of truth to it that can be the basis for any kind of meaningful discussion.

    1. Peter Jones says:

      In an ideal world you might have a point but I continue to point to my unbeaten track record when it comes to the agenda 21 roll-out here in Tairawhiti. When in the last 20 years have I ever been wrong?
      Kernel of truth for you right there.
      What makes you think Covid is any different?

  5. Gideon Pieters says:

    Great article Jonathan, thanks. for sharing. I am getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of proper questions or follow-up. The few times that a question of significance is asked the answer normally makes my confidence go further down.
    Here are a few:
    – Why are we vaccinating under the age of 18 at all?
    – Why are we ignoring naturally immunity or encourage healthy immunity
    – Why did Bloomfield bag Ivermectin where some South American countries have good results, Japan is suggesting it as a form of treatment in early stages, why is this not a doctor – patient discussion, and in France this is now an approved treatment, and why did the news frame this 2015 nobel winning (or use in humans) medication as something for animals which is a half truth.
    – Why are we suggesting the use of (cloth) masks, against a mainly aerosol transmitted disease? To me this is like the soviet union pre-fall of communism where everyone just ‘plays the game’. Wearing cloth mask maybe even more dangerous as you give people a perception of safety that isn’t there, like wearing a cloth helmet.
    – why are we giving boy in the age 12-30 a double dose and making the risk of heart complications unnecessarily bigger.

    So yes because I see so little incorporation of new data I have become more and more suspicious.

    1. Michael Wilson, Canterbury says:

      Quite correct Gideon! I would welcome a debate/discussion with experts on both sides putting forward their views, without using hyperbole or emotional rhetoric.
      People with existing comorbidities die from the flu, covid-19 and other diseases!
      We are never urged to change lifestyles – reduce sugar and processed food, alcohol, illicit and prescribed drugs, nutrition and exercise!
      Hospital beds in Israel are now filling up with the vaccinated! This needs to be discussed – the lifestyles of the seriously ill investigated – so that the actual cause of death is identified.