Guest Post: Let free speech sunlight disinfect COVID misinformation

A guest post by Jonathan Ayling, Free Speech Union Spokesperson:

The development of effective vaccines within twelve months of COVID-19 emerging is of
historic significance, yet it has occurred at a time when many people the world over 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 aimed at
acclimatising liberal societies to extreme social control. 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 about getting vaccinated is a tin-hat wearing bumpkin — they might be nervous
about how quickly the vaccine was developed or are sceptical of the motives of big pharma.

Regardless of 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
genuinely held concerns and classing them as stupid and uneducated goes no way towards
changing their minds or bettering public health outcomes. 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. Here in New Zealand, the 1 pm daily press
conferences have become a ubiquitous feature of lockdown life for many. Kiwis have also
turned to the news media and social media to better understand this new enemy and gain
insights into how best 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 and can
choose to accept or reject ideas based on how well they stack up against others. In theory,
free speech allows any idea to enter the marketplace, 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, and more importantly, who gets to decide? Perhaps the
government must fact police and censor anything potentially false. But 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 its 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, it occurs to me that the fact that 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 toward 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 vaccinehesitant
through reason and evidence will do far more to maximise the benefit of
vaccination for our communities than ostracism and silencing.

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