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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

When misinformation can do harm

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While a vigorous COVID-19 vaccination campaign has curbed the pandemic in the United States, we are not out of the woods yet, with herd immunity probably not reached and new variants of the virus threatening another surge. In this situation, the question of how a free society should handle dubious — and potentially harmful — information on key medical issues becomes especially complicated and urgent.

Last month, a social media controversy erupted over YouTube’s decision to demonetize the channels of Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, evolutionary biologists and outspoken dissenters from mainstream opinion on COVID-19. The husband-and-wife duo argues that the COVID-19 vaccines have been approved without sufficient testing and that ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug, is a cheap and effective cure that could beat the disease without vaccines.

For critics of "Big Tech," YouTube’s move to deny them ad revenue is a frightening example of censorship at work. Weinstein has said that his and Heying’s income has been halved by YouTube’s decision (though a stream of crowdfunding donations has offset the losses).

To be sure, Weinstein and Heying don't have a constitutional right to make money via YouTube advertising. However, given YouTube's dominance as a media platform, it can severely restrict an independent journalist’s or commentator’s access to a mass audience. Such power in the hands of a corporation that can legally refuse to air facts or viewpoints it doesn’t like is certainly troubling.

But should we also be troubled when social media’s unprecedented reach allows people to spread potentially deadly misinformation on a scale unimaginable with older means of communication?

The overwhelming majority of people who know the science believe that Weinstein’s warnings about the dangers of the vaccines are unfounded and irresponsible; he relies on unproven anecdotes to claim that the medical establishment is suppressing information about the vaccines’ "terrifying" side effects. Such scaremongering can and does cause people to refuse vaccination. Those decisions affect us all: If not enough people are vaccinated, the virus will continue to circulate, and even some people who have had the vaccine will get sick (since it is not 100% effective).

Weinstein’s basic narrative — the medical establishment is suppressing the truth about a deadly disease out of greed and intolerance toward dissent — is hardly new. Similar claims about cancer have led to numerous deaths when people chose quack remedies over conventional treatments. The claim that AIDS is not caused by a virus, championed by maverick scientist Kary Mullis (a Nobel Prize winner), contributed to the deaths of some 300,000 people in South Africa when the country’s former president Thabo Mbeki obstructed lifesaving treatments because of such theories.

Today, the erosion of trust in authority — whether experts or mainstream media — has greatly increased the influence of mavericks. Mainstream experts and journalists bear some of the blame: The recent climate of groupthink and intellectual orthodoxy on many issues, from race relations to gender identity, has been very real. It is no accident that Weinstein and Heying, both of whom left Washington State’s Evergreen College several years ago due to clashes over racial politics, are connected to the so-called "Intellectual Dark Web," a loose network of authors and thinkers who challenge such orthodoxies.

But while dissent and debate are essential, rebellion against orthodoxy can turn to knee-jerk contrarianism and develop its own intolerance to critics. Dissenters should pick their battles. In this case, YouTube’s move to discourage misinformation without removing content may be the optimal strategy.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.

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