Late last year, to not much fanfare, four countries in Europe lost their ‘measles elimination’ status, as cases surged. The US is also now in danger of losing the same status. Although symptoms are unpleasant, and can have long term effects, most people recover. However, around the world, 140,000 people died from measles in 2018, a rise of 18,000 over the previous year. This compares with 11,300 deaths from Ebola in the 2014-2016 outbreak, and, at the last count, 1900 deaths from coronavirus.
The difference between these three diseases is that there has been a safe and effective vaccine available for measles for several decades. But in recent years it has been the subject of repeated attacks by the ‘anti-vax’ movement, amid claims that it is unsafe and can result in autism. Despite such claims being comprehensively exposed as fraudulent, the story continues to circulate across social media, where it has gained a new lease of life.
Now new stories are circulating that coronavirus, far from emerging in a Wuhan animal market, was created in a laboratory in the UK. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others have been blamed. Other stories offer bad medical advice likely, say the experts, to put people at risk. Most worrying, research by East Anglia University shows that 40% of people in countries including the US and UK believe at least one conspiracy theory, and found that their behaviour was more dangerous as a result.
It’s easy to think of fake news as a problem of politics and a threat to the trust in governments and organisations. But what we can now be sure of is that it is also a very dangerous online harm, and should be treated as such. The right of free speech never extended to the right to contribute to thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Russell Seekins writes about the dangers of fake news and disinformation around the new coronavirus, and suggests that it should be treated like other online harms.
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