Let free speech sunlight disinfect Covid misinformation
by 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.