Viral Lies

Some falsehoods about the pandemic are so dangerous that they should be banned.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 27th January 2021

Why do we value lies more than lives? We know that certain falsehoods kill people. Some of those who believe such claims as “coronavirus doesn’t exist”; “it’s not the virus that makes people ill, but 5G”; or “vaccines are used to inject us with microchips” fail to take precautions or refuse to be vaccinated, then contract and spread the virus. Yet we allow these lies to proliferate.

We have a right to speak freely. We also have a right to life. When malicious disinformation – claims that are known to be both false and dangerous – can spread without restraint, these two values collide head on. One of them must give way, and the one we have chosen to sacrifice is human life. We treat free speech as sacred, but life as negotiable. When governments fail to ban outright lies that endanger people’s lives, I believe they make the wrong choice.

Any control of what we may say by governments is dangerous, especially when the government, like ours, has authoritarian tendencies. But the absence of control is also dangerous. In theory, we recognise that there are necessary limits to free speech: almost everyone agrees that we should not be free to shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre, because people are likely to be trampled to death. Well, people are being trampled to death by these lies. Surely the line has been crossed?

Those who demand absolute freedom of speech often talk about “the marketplace of ideas”. But in a marketplace, you are forbidden to make false claims about your product. You cannot pass one thing off as another. You cannot sell shares on a false prospectus. You are legally prohibited from making money by lying to your customers. In other words, in the marketplace there are limits to free speech. So where, in the marketplace of ideas, are the trading standards? Who regulates the weights and measures? Who checks the prospectus? We protect money from lies more carefully than we protect human life.

I believe that spreading only the most dangerous falsehoods, like those mentioned in the first paragraph, should be prohibited. A possible template is the Cancer Act, which bans people from advertising cures or treatments for cancer. A ban on the worst Covid lies should be time-limited, running for perhaps 6 months. I would like to see an expert committee, similar to SAGE, identifying claims that present a genuine danger to life, and proposing their temporary prohibition to Parliament.

While this measure would apply only to the most extreme cases, we should be far more alert to the dangers of misinformation in general. The new Anti-Virus site might help to tip the balance against those people, such as Toby Young, Allison Pearson, Peter Hitchens, Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan, who have made such public headway with their misleading claims about the pandemic.

But how did these claims become so prominent? They achieved traction only because they were given a massive platform in the media, particularly the Telegraph, the Mail and, above all, the house journal of unscientific gibberish, the Spectator. Their most influential outlet is the BBC. The BBC has an unerring instinct for misjudging where debate about a matter of science lies. It thrills to the sound of noisy, ill-informed contrarians. As the conservationist Stephen Barlow argues, science denial is destroying our societies and the survival of life on Earth. Yet it is treated by the media as a form of entertainment. The bigger the idiot, the greater the airtime.

Interestingly, all but one of the journalists mentioned on the Anti-Virus site also have a long track record of downplaying and, in some cases, denying, climate breakdown. Peter Hitchens, for example, has dismissed not only human-made global heating, but the greenhouse effect itself. Today, climate denial has mostly dissipated in this country, perhaps because the BBC has at last stopped treating climate change as a matter of controversy, and Channel 4 no longer makes films claiming that climate science is a scam. The broadcasters kept this disinformation alive, just as the BBC, still providing a platform for misleading claims this month, sustains falsehoods about the pandemic.

Ironies abound, however. One of the founders of the admirable Anti-Virus site is Sam Bowman, a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute(ASI). This is an opaquely-funded lobby group with a long history of misleading claims about science, that often seem to align with its ideology or the interests of its funders. For example, it has downplayed the dangers of tobacco smoke, and argued against smoking bans in pubs and plain packaging for cigarettes. In 2013, the Observer revealed that it had been taking money from tobacco companies. Bowman himself, echoing arguments made by the tobacco industry, has called for the “lifting all EU-wide regulations on cigarette packaging” on the grounds of “civil liberties”. He has railed against government funding for public health messages about the dangers of smoking.

Some of the ASI’s past claims about climate science – such as statements that the planet is “failing to warm” and that climate science is becoming “completely and utterly discredited” – are as idiotic as the claims about the pandemic that Bowman rightly exposes. The ASI’s Neoliberal Manifesto, published in 2019, maintains, among other howlers, that “fewer people are malnourished than ever before”. In reality, malnutrition has been rising since 2014. If Sam Bowman has suddenly become a defender of science, perhaps he could call out some of the falsehoods spread by his own organisation.

Lobby groups funded by plutocrats and corporations, like the ASI, are responsible for much of the misinformation that saturates public life. The launch of the Great Barrington Declaration, for example, that champions herd immunity through mass infection, with the help of discredited claims, was hosted – physically and online – by the American Institute for Economic Research. This institute has received money from the Charles Koch Foundation, and takes a wide range of anti-environmental positions.

It’s not surprising that we have an inveterate liar as Prime Minister: this government has emerged from a culture of right-wing misinformation, weaponised by think tanks and lobby groups. False claims are big business: rich people and organisations will pay handsomely for others to spread them. Some of those whom the BBC used to “balance” climate scientists in its debates were professional liars paid by fossil fuel companies.

Over the past 30 years, I have watched this business model spread like a virus through public life. Perhaps it is futile to call for a government of liars to regulate lies. But while conspiracy theorists make a killing from their false claims, we should at least name the standards that a good society would set, even if we can’t trust the current government to uphold them.