There’s a good reason for letting Covid conspiracy theories thrive on social media, say experts

·2 min read
Covid conspiracy theories - Reuters/Darrin Zammit
Covid conspiracy theories - Reuters/Darrin Zammit

Covid conspiracy theories should not be removed from social media sites as it only serves to drive the conversations into dark, unregulated corners of the web, experts have said.

A landmark report from the Royal Society stated that governments and online platforms should instead focus on investing in fact-checking and improving digital literacy.

Frank Kelly, emeritus professor of the mathematics of systems at the University of Cambridge, and one of the co-authors of the report, said: “Our report does not recommend removing misinformation.

“We found little evidence that forcing major platforms to remove offending content will limit scientific misinformation’s harms, and could even drive it into harder-to-address corners of the internet and exacerbate feelings of distrust in the authorities.”

The report looked specifically at harmful but legal misinformation, which can dupe people into believing falsehoods, but are not inherently dangerous in the same way as hate speech, threats or terrorist content.

For those forms of content, according to Prof Kelly, removal is necessary and effective.

He added that the vast majority of people surveyed by the Royal Society believe Covid vaccines are safe, humans are to blame for climate change and that 5G is not harmful.

Curbing anti-vaxxer influence

Despite this, he said there is clear evidence of real-world harm being done by conspiracy theories, such as anti-vaxxers clogging up hospital wards, 5G masts being damaged and insufficient action on climate change.

Echo chambers, he said, are also not a major problem when it comes to the spread of misinformation, contrary to what many people believe.

The report also talked about steps that online platforms and technology companies should look at as an alternative to content removal.

Prof Sir Nigel Shadbolt, the executive chairman of the Open Data Institute and another co-author of the report, said: “Demonetisation, allowing content to remain on platforms with mitigations to match its impact, may be a more effective approach to prioritise.”

Prof Kelly added: “Science stands on the edge of error and the nature of the scientific endeavour at the frontiers means there is always uncertainty.

“In the early days of the pandemic, science was too often painted as absolute and somehow not to be trusted when it corrects itself, but that prodding and testing of received wisdom is integral to the advancement of science, and society.

“This is important to bear in mind when we are looking to limit scientific misinformation’s harms to society.”

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