News & Current Affairs
SCAMDEMIC: Your Facebook posts are killing people
While social media can be a powerful tool for authorities in times of crisis, it can also be really dangerous. Like so many others this year, I have been spending more time than usual on social media and have been really disappointed to see so many people sharing conspiracy theories and spreading misinformation about COVID-19 under the fake guise of “freedom of speech” and “human rights”.
Whilst it seems that these conspiracy theories might be harmless and easy to disregard, a study published by the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene last month linked 800 deaths and 5,800 hospitalisations worldwide as a result of misinformation about the virus spread online. The study found that conspiracy theories, rumours and misinformation about COVID-19 were being spread in over 25 different languages across 87 different countries.
The authors of the study wrote “Misinformation fuelled by rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially serious implications on the individual and the community if prioritised over evidence-based guidelines”.
Although the study singled out the United States, China, Indonesia and Brazil as super-spreaders of misinformation, Australia is not immune to conspiracy theories. Research from the Queensland University of technology suggested that politically focused retweeting of coronavirus topics was harmful and almost exclusively promoted the interests of far-right wing parties and governments internationally. 
“Social media companies need to take greater responsibility for disinformation on their sites, particularly where coordinated and automated retweeting is promoting dangerous disinformation…. While Twitter is starting to call out some of President Trump’s more egregious tweets, social media companies have a long way to go to stem the flow of divisive and dangerous disinformation on their platforms.”
All too often I see people on social media attempting to mask their harmful conduct as an expression of their human rights and freedom of speech, including a Melbourne woman recently refusing to wear a mask, stating that she didn’t consent to being arrested and was merely expressing her freedoms.
I have previously written about the issue of “freedom of speech” in Australia here (https://aulich.com.au/political-communication-vs-health-crisis/) and here (https://aulich.com.au/folau-workplace-laws/). Effectively, and unlike the United States, there is no such thing as a broad freedom of speech or an enshrined bill of rights in the Australian Constitution. In other words, there is no excuse for these people to be spreading misinformation.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (the TGA), which regulates medicine and medical devices in Australia, has the power to issue infringements for misleading advertising relating the medicines and medical devices in contravention of the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989. The TGA has recently issued fines to Pete Evans’ company, as well as Lorna Jane, for advertising that promoted their products as curing or preventing COVID-19. 
While the TGA’s powers are useful and important in deterring others from spreading harmful information, the TGA simply does not have the power, or the resources, to regulate the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation on social media.
This begs the question of what can be done then to prevent people from spreading harmful misinformation online and encouraging conduct of the likes we have seen recently in Melbourne – the answer is, without the help of the big social media conglomerates, not a lot.
Frankly, it’s time for social media companies to take responsibility and prevent the spread of harmful misinformation on their sites. If you are someone who shares these kind of posts, I implore you to listen to the experts and stop sharing harmful information online – your Facebook posts are killing people.
 Md Saiful Islam et al, “COVID-19-Related Infodemnic and Its Impact on Public Health: A Global Social Media Analysis”, The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene <http://www.ajtmh.org/content/journals/10.4269/ajtmh.20-0812;jsessionid=-ETrfB53Hw7IIHnlp2BbSu4i.ip-10-241-1-122.
 “Like a virus: The co-ordinated spread of coronavirus disinformation”, The Australia Institute – Centre Responsible Technology. <https://www.centreforresponsibletechnology.org.au/pro_trump_accounts_coordinated_spread_of_china_bio_weapon_covid_conspiracy_theory.
 https://www.tga.gov.au/media-release/pete-evans-company-fined-alleged-covid-19-advertising-breaches; https://www.tga.gov.au/media-release/lorna-jane-fined-almost-40000-alleged-advertising-breaches-relation-covid-19-and-anti-virus-activewear.