As vaccines for Covid-19 are rolled out across the world, fake medical news is becoming a bigger issue than ever. Disseminating false information could lead to vaccine hesitancy, lower levels of vaccination, less protection for the general population, and the deaths of vulnerable people.
A Polish legal expert, Kamil Mamak, of Jagiellonian University, has suggested in the journal Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy that it may be necessary to criminalise fake medical news. “Whoever publicly disseminates information evidently discrepant with medical knowledge [will be] subject to a penalty,” is his proposal.
Criminal sanctions for spreading false and mischievous information are already on the books in Poland. There, as in other European countries, Holocaust denial is a crime. Free speech, he says, is never absolute.
Mamak says that criminal penalties have to be a last resort, after resorting to measures like education, making accurate information readily available on the internet, and self-regulation by companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google.
There are definitional problems, Mamak admits. Who determines what is true and what is false? He says that it has to be “discrepant with medical knowledge” – in other words, differing from the consensus of experts. “The status of medical information must be clear for the representative body of scientists. It cannot be applied to a situation in which scientists have polarized opinions. For example, it is possible to publish positive results while others publish negative results on the same issue based on the same data.”
What about medical breakthroughs which are not accepted by the consensus? Mamak points out that the offense would have to include “public dissemination”, so divergence from a consensus would be not be an offence if it were in professional circles – submitting an article to a journal, for instance.
Public dissemination is not limited to creating fake news – in Mamak’s view, it could also include sharing and liking articles on Facebook or liking and reposting on Twitter.
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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