Doctors' group backs Press Gazette Infodemic campaign: 'Tsunami of falsehoods on Covid-19 is making us helpless'

Covid-19 disinformation should be challenged

A group representing doctors across the UK today backs Press Gazette’s “Fight The Infodemic” campaign, which calls on social media firms to do more to tackle Covid-19 misinformation.

We reported yesterday how medical professionals from the US, UK and Portugal had warned British MPs that “misinformation on social media is costing lives”.

Today, Tom Knowles – an advanced paramedic practitioner and advisory team member of EveryDoctor, a campaign group for medical professionals – backs Press Gazette’s campaign, and tells social media giants: “Lies must be challenged.” Read his full op-ed on the Covid-19 infodemic below.

By Tom Knowles, EveryDoctor

The advent and continued growth of social media presents many opportunities to the world. The free exchange of ideas, information and learning is to be celebrated. But there is a danger lurking in the depths. There is a rising tide of online disinformation.

From Youtube’s algorithms promoting naked conspiracy, to Facebook allowing groups to promote ideas which erode trust in clinicians and health services, some corners of social media increasingly pose a threat to public welfare in the name of profits. The pursuit of prolonged engagement and repeated views means algorithms can promote untrue and damaging counter-cultural content.

This is a fine line to tread. There are clearly issues of freedom of expression at hand here, and of legitimate dissent. There are places where the medical establishment has and does fail. There are areas where reasonable people might credibly dispute the best course of action. There are holistic factors that not every doctor is able to consider. We do need to be careful, which is why we’re not talking about areas of uncertainty. We are talking about lies.

EveryDoctor is a pro-doctor, pro-NHS membership organisation, which campaigns for improved working conditions, and a secure, well-funded and productive health service. We have been working alongside Avaaz, an NGO that has been instrumental in this discussion, in bringing this issue before Parliament when I and another member of the EveryDoctor team gave evidence to the Digital Culture, Media and Sport select committee last week.

Our view aligns very closely with that of Press Gazette on Covid-19 misinformation, and that is why we support the ‘Fight The Infodemic’ campaign.

‘It is not enough to put a link nearby or tag it as questionable. Lies must be challenged’

In early May, EveryDoctor co-signed a letter from Avaaz to social media platforms alongside thousands of other health professionals providing two primary suggestions:

Firstly, that the platforms must seek to correct the record. Where viral disinformation is observed, it must be identified, obscured and retrospectively corrected. It is not enough to put a link nearby or tag it as questionable. Lies must be challenged, and that action should include flagging the correction visibly for those who have already viewed it.  This is best accomplished by robust, independent fact checking.

Secondly, they must detoxify their algorithms, and actively de-emphasise content which is shown to be factually inaccurate. It should no longer be the case that clicking on one video with 5G conspiracy leads to a flooding of your feed or front page with those damaging falsehoods. These algorithms are the process by which the platforms promote engagement and therefore exposure – a failure to act in this instance is to effectively monetise the damage done to health systems and individuals’ lives.

In March 2020, there were 2,962,751 calls made to NHS 111, more than double the usual volume. One version of the ‘Plandemic’ documentary was viewed 7.1 million times in 48 hours prior to its removal by Youtube.

‘We are the helpers made helpless by a tsunami of falsehoods’

For the members who testified to the committee, these fears are more than principled abstractions.

We have experienced and heard accounts of patients frightened to take their medication. Of people with life-threatening presentations refusing to accept the help of emergency services. The panic of a new mother, afraid for herself and her child. Communities driven to mistrust, where we already face barriers of access. We are the helpers made helpless by a tsunami of falsehoods, the scope and variety of which we cannot hope to contend with. We don’t have the time or the resource.

The platforms hosting the content do, and that is why they also have an obligation.

Tom Knowles is an Advanced Paramedic Practitioner within NHS 111 and a member of the advisory team for the campaign organisation, EveryDoctor.

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