It’s time for government intervention against the spread of false information

“Fake news” about COVID-19 has killed people, and continues to put many more lives at risk

Freedom of speech should stop at the point that it endangers people’s lives. Illustration: Reslus/The Peak

By: Anna Kazi, SFU Student

As the total number of coronavirus cases in Canada rises to approximately 79,112 (at the time of writing) people are increasingly looking to social media for news, information, and entertainment. While the increased use of social media is positive in the context that people are using it to get the latest information regarding the pandemic, it is also being used to disseminate fake news online regarding COVID-19. To counter fake news, the Canadian government is considering introducing fake news legislation. This is a necessary measure to protect people from misinformation, especially as more and more Canadians rely on social media as their primary source of news.

Misinformation on the COVID-19 pandemic takes many forms. According to some Facebook posts, consuming cocaine and methanol is the ultimate solution to coronavirus. As examples of fake news, these remedies are increasingly disseminated by people online. Moreover, some manipulators are misleading people by creating conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19, such as the now infamous “Plandemic” video. While some social media platforms like Facebook are taking measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, it is long past due for our government to step up and do its part. Misinformation is a global issue that needs to be countered by legislation, as it puts the lives of many people at risk. 

No example of this danger is perhaps more pertinent than the recent protest in Vancouver that called the coronavirus pandemic “fake news.” Both the protest and the misinformation that fueled it were spread on social media to help gain participation and coverage. If the fake news legislation were to be in place, it would be a criminal offense to knowingly spread misinformation and conspiracy theories — including those regarding the pandemic. This would have contained the misinformation to small pockets of communication, and limited the number of protestors at the event in close proximity with the potential to spread the virus. 

Given the current COVID-19 circumstances, government intervention in the spread of fake news is necessary in order to prevent people from harmful activities based on dangerous misinformation. In Iran for example, nearly 500 people died after following inaccurate advice on social media to ingest methanol (a poisonous industrial alcohol) as protection against catching coronavirus.

There is of course a valid argument to be made that legislation against what can be shared on social media might curb freedom of speech. People may be hesitant to express their thoughts on coronavirus for fear of being criminalized for accidentally sharing something untrue. Similarly, we shouldn’t uncritically allow the government to determine what is and isn’t good for us to consume in terms of media. However, there comes a time when the government must be responsible when the citizens obviously cannot, and the issue of public health and safety is definitely one of those times. If the focus of elected officials should be on protecting people with more hospitals and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, then it should also be their focus to protect citizens from dangerous misinformation. 

Protecting peoples’ lives should be the top priority of the government. Part of that is recognizing that providing an authentic, truthful, and objective news sharing environment is just as essential as building hospitals.