Should we criminalise those who spread misinformation about vaccines?

Should we criminalise those who spread misinformation about vaccines?

On moral grounds, deliberate aim to spread malicious vaccine disinformation which could result in preventable deaths should be considered criminal, argues Professor Melinda Mills in the University of Oxford.

She points out that a majority (70-83%) of both Americans and Europeans use the world wide web to find health information, often on social networking, which over 65% of YouTube's content about vaccines seems to be roughly discouraging their use, focusing on autism, adverse reactions, or false ingredients.

And a recent UK study found that users that relied on social websites for their advice, especially YouTube, were considerably less inclined to be vaccinated.

However, Mills admits that criminalisation isn't straightforward. By way of instance, laws against spreading fake news and health disinformation have been passed in France, Germany, Malaysia, Russia, and Singapore, however societal media companies have argued they aren't publishers and have minimal responsibility to vet articles, though they've agreed to run some editorial decisions and reality checking.

And early analysis of the German law revealed that social media companies were risk averse, curtailing freedom of expression and censoring legitimate material.

"We will need to choose whether social media companies are publishers, and we want legislation to guide them to adjust algorithms and determine to what extent information ought to be balanced and truth assessed, together with users led to accurate resources," she writes.

"The authorities, scientists, and health authorities also should take responsibility... supplying content as engaging as their misinformation counterparts and enabling dialogue," she adds.

But Mills believes that criminalising those who intentionally hurt others through false information also needs to be considered. "The liberty to debate, and allow the public to increase legitimate vaccine issues to fulfill the knowledge void, should not extend to causing malicious injury," she concludes.

There's not any denying that the planet would be a better place without misinformation, or that it could be in the public interest for anti-vaccination misinformation to not exist. But criminalising it could make it grow even more powerful, argues Jonas Sivelä at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare.

He acknowledges that civil liberties, including freedom of speech, can and should be restricted in certain cases - for example, when it has to do with inciting lawless activities and violence. But he believes that anti-vaccination misinformation is not such a case.

Vaccine hesitancy is influenced not only by anti-vaccination calling or misinformation but also by the ease of vaccination providers and public complacency, he clarifies. Criminalising anti-vaccine misinformation seems a strong response but doesn't deal with these difficulties.

We have to also acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about vaccines which should be permitted to be voiced, '' he asserts. "Failing to contemplate or response people's worries, and instead suffocating related discussion, would just lead to an increased lack of assurance in the long run - and an increase in misinformation."

Rather than criminalising communicating, other technical solutions for tackling misinformation have demonstrated successful, such as attempts by Facebook and Twitter to deal with false claims through fact checking and labelling misinformation, he adds.

What's more, trust in government, authorities, and the health care system is crucial when it comes to ensuring high vaccine approval, he says. "The only approach to sustainably reduce misinformation about vaccination - and to strengthen vaccine confidence and acceptance in the long run - is to increase confidence in these institutions and authorities in different states," he concludes.