BBC platforms anti-vaccine scaremonger

Isobel Cockerell

 

PLATFORMING FRINGE SCIENTISTS IS BAD JOURNALISM

The BBC came under fire for letting anti-vaccine conspiracies hijack a news broadcast last week. The corporation invited Aseem Malhotra, a fringe scientist, onto the program. He made an unevidenced claim that Covid vaccines were causing excess deaths from coronary artery disease. “If you’ll allow me to say this, what my own research has found, is that the Covid MRNA vaccines do carry a cardiovascular risk,” he said. Malhotra’s views are extreme: he has retweeted claims comparing the vaccine to the Holocaust. And based on his “own research,” he made the claims about cardiovascular risk. 

“We did it. We broke mainstream broadcast media ????????????,” Malhotra tweeted after the interview aired. Anti-vaccine activists celebrated, too. “Just WOW!…on BBC, the belly of the beast,” wrote a YouTube commenter. Russell Brand, the entertainer turned health guru turned conspiracy theorist, also celebrated the fact that Malholtra had bagged a slot on the channel. 

Nigel Farage retweeted the clip. I first spotted Farage’s anti-vaccine dog whistling back in 2020, when he told me in an interview that he was “skeptical” of the vaccine. “There’s a little bit of me that says, ‘Oh go on, Bill [Gates], you have it first,’” he told me at the time. 

Not so long ago, I was invited to speak on U.K. radio about “the Covid vaccine debate.” The broadcaster wanted me to debate a known, prominent anti-vaccine activist. After a bit of thought, I declined. Booking that radical anti-vaccine voice and giving them airtime, I told the producer, wasn’t about objectivity and balance. It wasn’t responsible journalism. And it wasn’t reflective of actual scientific conversations around vaccines. It’s false balance, skewing people’s perceptions of science, convincing them that being anti-vaccine is a legitimate academic position, and an equal and opposite view to supporting vaccines. In reality, the anti-vaccine movement is grounded in for-profit charlatanism, conspiracy theories, magical thinking and a total rejection of science and logic — and it’s also represented by an extreme margin of fringe conspiracy groups. While I do think we should talk about and confront anti-vaccine activism, it’s not “balance” to let an anti-vaccine voice on air every time we discuss vaccine rollouts. 

David Robert Grimes, a scientist and vaccine advocate, wrote in the Byline Times that inviting Aseem Malhotra to the BBC “exemplifies an unedifying trend during the pandemic: the fringe scientist, commanding huge audiences and, in some other cases, substantial profits.” When Malhotra speaks on a platform like the BBC, he sounds educated and convincing — and he has the credentials to match. Watching the clip could leave anyone feeling distrustful of the vaccine and the science. But, as Grimes says, “we should never forget that totality of evidence – not credentials – matter.”

IN GLOBAL NEWS

Climate change denial is a new favorite tactic of people and corporations who, until recently, sought only to delay climate action. That’s according to a new report on disinformation and the climate crisis, which monitored online activity, narratives and tactics during the November COP27 summit. Climate denialism was hot in 2022, the researchers found, and spread far and wide on Twitter in particular, with the hashtag #climatescam trending with hundreds of thousands of mentions. The narratives of climate denial have a lot of crossover with other conspiracy movements, “presenting climate action as part of a plot by ‘global elites’ to exert control and, conversely, claiming that climate change has been ‘engineered’ to destroy capitalism,” the researchers wrote. 

Flat earthers, Bigfoot, conversion therapy, young-Earth creationism, climate change denial. These are some of the extreme views and conspiracy theories that you can now study as part of a new university course called Psychology of Pseudoscience offered at the State University of New York at Cortland. As part of the course, students create their own bogus scientific claims and then make a game plan to convince as many people as possible of their beliefs. The course director, Craig A. Foster, writes: “I expect climate change denial, anti-vaccination and creationism to remain major points of contention in American society for decades. Educated people should understand the discussions that occur around these kinds of social problems.” 

In Greenland, the official attitude towards climate change is not denial — but a kind of forced optimism. The thought of all that land and of discovering what lies beneath the ice are appealing to some — particularly when it comes to the nation’s tourism prospects. Tourists are already dashing to the island to see the ice caps before they melt, and Greenland is building three new airports to accommodate them as the country emphasizes growing its infrastructure and its tourism industry. Others, though, are worried about the island becoming an amusement park. But for now, Greenland is trying to put a positive spin on climate.

WHAT WE’RE READING 

  • How could journalists and digital rights organizations have covered the pandemic better? And where’s the line between giving a platform to conspiracy theorists and shielding governments and pharmaceutical giants from scrutiny? For the Disinformation Chronicle, Andrew Lowenthal writes about how the pandemic ushered in a new era in which governments were protected, rather than held to account, as they rolled out pandemic measures. 
  • If you really want something to dig into with several pots of tea by your side this weekend, then you could do worse than reading behavioral scientist Caroline Orr Bueno’s latest monumental piece of research. She digs into how Russian influence operations targeted and inflated narratives about Canada’s “freedom convoy,” the anti-lockdown trucker movement, last year.