Disinformation can be deadly. Tobacco industry propaganda disguising the dangers of smoking; the actions of big oil to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change; corrupt scientists telling parents that life-saving vaccines are unsafe: all have cost lives. And so it goes in a pandemic. “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” said the director general of the World Health Organization earlier this year. It was prescient.
There are people with a clear motivation to spread disinformation regardless of the human cost. There are the corporate interests such as the Conservative donor and multimillionaire hotel owner Rocco Forte, who was given a primetime BBC platform to spread untruths about Covid-19.
There are the libertarian thinktanks and politicians who, on principle, resist any regulation that could protect people’s health, such as the American Institute for Economic Research, which has promoted unscientific claims about herd immunity. And there are the shameless populists who will embrace any cause that allows them to consume ever-increasing amounts of political oxygen, such as Nigel Farage.
But the most puzzling motivation in the disinformation ecosystem are of the scientists who get caught up in it. In this pandemic, a trio of scientists wrote the “Great Barrington declaration” that claimed that governments can control the spread of the virus simply by segregating the vulnerable and their carers from society. This despite the fact it would be pretty much impossible, and ethically questionable, for 30%-40% of the population to lock themselves away for what at best would be well over a year.…