The Government needs to take health misinformation seriously
Throughout the pandemic many of us encountered the dangers of health misinformation first hand. We saw how it sows distrust and confusion, discouraging people from taking vital medication, or accessing the right treatments. It ruins lives, and in some instances, costs them.
Full Fact’s new report, Online health misinformation in the UK: why it spreads, the impact it has, and how to reduce harm through the Online Safety Bill looks at the ways health misinformation can spread into our daily lives. Working with healthcare professionals and academics, we’ve identified false or misleading information across the board; on cancer treatments, vaccinations, fertility and pregnancy, heart disease medication, mental health conditions and sexually transmitted diseases.
This affects everyone. Health misinformation can encourage people to take dangerous risks with their personal health, and of those they care for. It creates mistrust of health professionals and systems, is used to spread hate and damage psychological and physical health. It also undermines decision-making by policymakers and health and social care leaders.
While we know that health misinformation is not a new phenomenon, we also know that the internet has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and share information, and that this has increased the rate at which harmful health misinformation spreads.
That’s why during the pandemic, many of the largest platforms took action to tackle health misinformation. We saw them take welcome steps to improve the supply of high-quality information from official sources. But internet companies haven’t sustained these efforts consistently, or gone far enough.
The Online Safety Bill is a great opportunity to tackle this issue, but what the Government is currently proposing in the Bill won’t change anything. Instead of making this issue a priority, the Bill fails to address the harm that comes from health misinformation. Internet companies are being left to decide what type of content is harmful to us without any kind of oversight or accountability from the regulator, Ofcom. This is too important to ignore. We need to see bad information tackled appropriately, and treated consistently. And to ensure that we protect free speech online, we need to see legislation which transparently assesses the risks health misinformation presents us with, rather than leaving tech companies to mark their own homework.
If the Online Safety Bill is not amended to ensure that internet companies are held accountable for how they tackle health misinformation online, we are all left vulnerable, and unprepared for the next health crisis.