Fake News: Fanning the Flames of Global Health Epidemics
Author: Theo Clarke
With Britain’s support, the marvel of science will once again outwit the protagonists peddling anti-vaccination myths.
Three years after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the UK to be measles free, that status has been lost. Around the world, child vaccination rates are stagnating. So much so that UNICEF has warned that, today, one in ten children are missing basic immunisations against the life- threatening infections of measles, diphtheria and tetanus. While the context within countries experiencing these trends varies enormously, a common thread connects them: the spread of false information, accelerated by social media platforms. At home and abroad the dissemination of fake news is contributing to fewer children being vaccinated against preventable diseases.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has responded by summoning social media companies to a summit and urging them to quash misleading anti- vaccination messages on their platforms. It is sobering to think that despite the vast body of scientific evidence proving that vaccinations protect against preventable diseases, unfounded rumours are causing global setbacks. But it too, is important to remember how far we have come. According to the WHO, smallpox was ‘one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity’. In 1980, following a global immunisation campaign, the disease was eradicated. Gone. In 1988, more than 350,000 people developed paralytic polio, and at least 70 million were infected with the virus. In 2018, there were just 18 cases worldwide.
So as the debate about ‘fake news’ fuelling a resurgence by anti-vaccination protagonists takes hold, it is important that we remind ourselves of the huge progress made, and for us not to lose sight of what’s possible, when we persevere. Disinformation – the spread of false information with the intention to deceive – has historically hindered medical responses to outbreaks of disease. Whether responding to outbreaks of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or a newly diagnosed case of polio in Pakistan, medical professionals and community workers are having to compete with fake news.
In the case of the DRC, misinformation has undermined efforts to control the Ebola virus, with people told that Ebola is spread by the government in Kinshasa as means of suppressing political opposition. A situation that was complicated further this year when efforts to contain the outbreak prevented some provinces from taking part in the DRC elections. This disinformation contributed to the death toll which at the time of writing was confirmed by WHO as being 1696 people.
With polio in Pakistan, political insurgents have used social media platforms to peddle myths that vaccinations will sterilise boys or contain pork or alcohol, forbidden in Islam. Atul Gwande, the medical doctor, author and global healthcare pioneer, examined the case of polio vaccination efforts in India in 2003 in his book ‘Better’. He recounts the instance of a mother in a village in Karnataka state who had refused polio vaccinations for her children after rumours had circulated that the Indian government was giving different drops to Muslim boys in order to make them infertile.
As we can see, while WhatsApp and Facebook might not have been around 16 years ago, the pernicious spread of disinformation was alive and well. After a 5-year period as a polio-free nation in 2016, polio was declared to have been eradicated in India, the country that the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) considered the most difficult region in the world to achieve eradication. The protagonists lost there, and they will again. While the tactics to deceive and manipulate populations in pursuit of military, ideological and political ends are as old as the practice of conflict itself, the advent of affordable and near universally accessible communication technology asks different questions of the response of global health programmes. The answer lies in part in technology itself, as we have seen in Sierra Leone, where the fight to contain Ebola was aided by the use of the WhatsApp messaging service.
The dream of the internet's creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, to connect the world to share information for the good of mankind can still be realised. But as it stands, it's fuelling global health epidemics. The British government is leading the charge, calling on the tech giants and social media platforms to be the enablers of accurate information, in whichever hand, wherever in the world their platform connects to a device. Because to tackle Ebola in Africa, polio in Asia and measles in Europe, we first must defeat the spread of fake news.
This article was originally published in PoliMonitor’s essay collection ‘280 CHARACTERS Social media in politics: spreading fake news or strengthening democracy?’ on 31st August 2019.