Covid-19 and the Pandemic of Fake Healthcare News

*This article was published by Media Law International.  Read more here.

The social media scene has been replete with health misinformation. The remedies run from the almost believable to the comical and to the downright bizarre. Comic relief aside, health misinformation may lead to serious consequences, if left unchecked. An article in the British Medical Journal cited a survey carried out by PEW Foundation in 2013 in the USA that revealed that 6 out of 10 Americans go online to find the cause of their medical condition and that of those who found a diagnosis online, 35 per cent of respondents said they did not follow this up with a visit to a professional medical provider.

Lies, damned lies…

“Taking a hot bath kills the coronavirus”; “Cut onions and garlic placed at different corners of the house will keep the coronavirus away”;“Vaccines against pneumonia will protect you against the coronavirus”; “Rinsing the nose with saline protects against the coronavirus”; “You can protect yourself from Covid-19 by gargling bleach. …”

The Independent newspaper in the United Kingdom reported on 15 June 2019, that the spread of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo triggered a second parallel virus of the virtual kind comprising of myth, moonshine, conspiracy theories and paranoia. Healthcare providers were being blamed and lived in fear of their lives.

Fake healthcare news is a real threat and needs to be addressed as part of public health.

In Malaysia, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission on 20 March 2018 set up a fact checking website, Sebenarnya.my. The public has been urged to use this website to check facts relating to Covid-19. Similar websites have also been set up by countries like India, Taiwan, Italy and various others.

The cruel reality is that misinformation is often a more interesting read than facts.  The narrative surrounding health misinformation is often more emotive and hence more engaging. In fact, a study carried out by Kingston University, London, found that more than 60 per cent of fake news read online on healthcare issues is considered credible by readers, and that trust in such claims increases if a particular story is seen multiple times.

There is little choice here. The law must step in. Otherwise, sick people may not receive the treatment that is needed.  

In Malaysia, the Minister of Defence reported on 3 April 2020 that 24 people had been charged for spreading Covid-19 fake news and 152 cases were reported as being under investigation. The prosecutions have hitherto been reported as being founded on the provisions of section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and the Penal Code.

Alternatively, if the misinformation can be regarded as an advertisement for a remedy for the purpose of prevention or treatment of Covid-19, then without the necessary approval from the Medicine Advertisements Board in Malaysia, the publication of that information may also be an offence that would attract criminal sanctions under the Medicines (Advertisement and Sale) Act 1956.

Ultimately, the criminal justice system will condemn the individuals concerned and fines and jail time serve to act as a deterrent to the general populace.

Misinformation that originates from healthcare providers forms an even greater threat. The credibility and believability of the information are no doubt enhanced. Medical practitioners who are predisposed to spreading healthcare misinformation are at risk of being disciplined by the Medical Council.

The difficulty with social media, however, is that the perpetrator of the misinformation may be anonymous and may be outside a particular jurisdiction. Hence, although, in theory, legislation like the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 has extra territorial reach, prosecution of the perpetrator may encounter practical difficulties.  More importantly, the misinformation continues to have online presence and influence regardless of any prosecution.  Efforts to counteract the effects of such postings need therefore to be considered. Ultimately, the misinformation needs to be publicly corrected and access to the misinformation needs to be disabled.

It would be remiss to end this discussion without reference to the roles and responsibilities of online platforms. In what some may view as a welcome response to growing criticisms, Facebook announced that it will begin to moderate false news and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations. Facebook is also reported to be working on a feature to notify users who engage with misinformation flagged by moderators.

Deception is certainly not a modern invention.  Modernity has simply permitted the effects of the deception to be far-reaching. The deception itself has therefore become a pandemic of its own.

‘This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Contributed by 

Raja Eileen Soraya (Partner)
(T): +603-2632 9890
(E): [email protected]

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