The Lancet Commission on lessons for the future from the COVID-19 pandemic (2) Disinformation in media

19 September, 2022

Citation, extract and comment from me below.

CITATION: The Lancet Commission on lessons for the future from the COVID-19 pandemic

Prof Jeffrey D Sachs et al

Published: September 14, 2022



'False news, propaganda, and demagoguery are nothing new. Yet the means of deploying these malicious forces change over time with each new medium of communication. In the past two centuries, newspapers, radio, and television have each served as purveyors of misinformation and disinformation. Now we are experiencing new forms of disinformation through digital media, which are especially powerful in disseminating ideas because of their reach (eg, Facebook has nearly 2·4 billion subscribers), immediacy, relative anonymity, and the ease of creating echo chambers of tightly clustered groups receiving utterly different impressions of the facts from other online communities.

'The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first crisis in which misinformation has been shared, and it is not the only issue that is permeated by lies and distrust. The spread of misinformation and disinformation is common among climate change deniers, the tobacco industry's continued fight against warning labels, and parents who refuse or delay routine childhood vaccinations. The rapid speed at which news is shared, the deliberate spread of misinformation and disinformation by political leaders [*see note below], and the lack of truth-telling and adequate oversight creates an overwhelming environment that fosters distrust in health officials and promotes the idea that individual opinions have equal weight to the best available scientific evidence. This distrust has real-world consequences. One study in Italy found that poor public understanding of the risk of COVID-19 infection, even during the peak of COVID-19 incidence in 2020, was related to 11 411 people breaking lockdown regulations.238 Some media outlets erroneously promoted dangerous or experimental treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, resulting in unnecessary visits to hospital emergency departments and shortages of such medications for people with legitimate needs.

'All countries proved to be highly vulnerable to disinformation and misinformation regarding the pandemic, with one study documenting that 46% of people in the UK and 48% of people in the United States were exposed to false information. A 2020 study of the most-viewed videos about COVID-19 on YouTube found that more than 43% of these videos contained misleading information. In the United States, the political far-right has promoted anti-science rhetoric, as shown by their opposition to COVID-19 vaccines and anti-COVID-19 prevention measures. Anti-science rhetoric and disinformation about COVID-19 are now promoted by several elected members of the US Congress,244 and are often disseminated by cable television news channels and podcasts. By some estimates, between 100 000 and 200 000 Americans lost their lives because they refused COVID-19 vaccinations and were open in their defiance.245 This anti-science movement has globalised with tragic consequences.

'Pope Francis raised his powerful voice against the dangerous infodemic regarding vaccines, declaring: “To be properly informed, to be helped to understand situations based on scientific data and not fake news, is a human right.” WHO is the leading international authority on health and should be supported by its member states and by other UN agencies to lead the global response to a health crisis. However, various political leaders publicly undermined WHO, disseminated campaigns against it and its advice, and even tried to halt its funding.'


COMMENT (NPW): The Commission glances over the fact of 'deliberate spread of misinformation and disinformation by political leaders'. In 2012 HIFA and the New York Law School demonstrated that governments have a legal obligation under international human rights law to ensure their citizens have access to reliable healthcare information. Deliberate spread of misinformation by political leaders is a human rights violation and those leaders should be made accountable.

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, Global Coordinator HIFA,

Working in official relations with WHO