Should we criminalise those who spread misinformation about vaccines?

  • Mills MC; Sivelä J.
  • BMJ
  • 17 Feb 2021

  • curated by Dawn O'Shea
  • UK Medical News
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Concern is growing about the spread of false information about vaccines. But should we consider criminalising people who deliberately spread false information, or could this do more harm than good? Two experts debate the issue in the BMJ.

On ethical grounds, deliberate intent to spread malicious vaccine disinformation that could result in preventable deaths should be considered criminal, argues Professor Melinda Mills at the University of Oxford.

She points out that a majority (70%-83%) of Americans and Europeans use the internet to find health information, often on social media, and that over 65 per cent of YouTube’s content about vaccines seems to be about discouraging their use, focusing on autism, adverse reactions or false ingredients.

And a recent UK study found that users who relied on social media for their information, particularly YouTube, were significantly less willing to be vaccinated.

Mills believes that criminalising people who intentionally hurt others through false information should also be considered. “The freedom to debate, and to allow the public to raise legitimate vaccine concerns to fill the knowledge void, should not extend to causing malicious harm,” she concludes.

However, Jonas Sivelä from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, says criminalising misinformation could make it grow even stronger.

“We must also acknowledge legitimate concerns about vaccines that should be allowed to be voiced,” he argues. “Failing to consider or answer people’s worries, and instead suffocating relevant discussion, would only result in an increased lack of confidence in the long run—and an increase in misinformation.”

Trust in authorities, governments and the health care system is key when it comes to ensuring high vaccine acceptance, he says. “The only way to sustainably reduce misinformation about vaccination—and to strengthen vaccine confidence and acceptance in the long run—is to increase trust in these institutions and authorities in different countries,” he concludes.