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Scientists warn against censoring scientific misinformation

January 27, 2022

Leading scientists have warned governments and social media companies against relying on content removal in the fight to curb the spread of online misinformation regarding COVID-19.

In its latest report, the UK’s Royal Society acknowledges the detrimental impact online misinformation is having but has expressed concerns that a ‘blanket ban’ on dubious scientific information may do more harm than good.

‘The Online Information Environment’ document recognizes that misinformation circulated either maliciously or unintentionally on platforms such as TikTok, Facebook and Twitter can have real-world consequences on humans’ decision-making behaviour, affecting everything from vaccine uptake to belief in the severity of the climate crisis.

However, the report’s Chair, Professor Frank Kelly FRS, warned that large-scale removal of so-called ‘fake news’ could potentially undermine public trust in science and even drive users towards ‘harder-to-address corners’ of the Web.

The report’s authors also emphasised that scientists’ ability to self-correct in accordance with new scientific discoveries should be celebrated, not mistrusted.

The Royal Society’s report concludes that whilst censoring misinformation is not advisable, there are concrete steps that should be taken by governments and social media platforms to prevent its spread and foster a healthy online environment.

The document also highlights the need for government policies that address the harm misinformation can inflict upon society as a whole, rather than over-focusing on the harm caused to individuals.

Other recommendations laid out in the report include in-depth independent fact-checking, interventions to counter misinformation spread on private messaging platforms, education on digital literacy for people of all ages, and increased monitoring of ‘fringe’ social media platforms where scientific misinformation often flourishes.

Read the full report here

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