The deliberate publication of false or inaccurate information in social media is so alarming that it has been named the “Pandemic of Disinformation in COVID-19.” It can come in different forms, starting from spreading unverified information, to publishing lies and falsifying documents and pictures. Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are all mobilized in this war against lies.
Disinformation has become so clever and sophisticated that individuals are unable to defend against it on their own. Expert fact checkers are needed to let the truth prevail. The Health Ministry has taken these threats very seriously, investing millions of shekels in health education to encourage young adults to vaccinate and setting up an elite, technically savvy unit to scour the Internet to search for and remove viral fake news that could potentially damage Israel’s coronavirus vaccination efforts.
However, this war against fake news diverts our attention from subtler and institutionalized forms of ‘mind engineering’ routinely practiced by Israeli broadcasting channels. Here is one such example: Corresponding with the partial reopening of Israeli schools to children aged 7-11, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, announced that he was considering legislation that would enable employers to prevent workers who aren’t vaccinated against the coronavirus from coming in to work. He warned the bill would also apply to those in the education system.
As this bill would constitute a significant encroachment on employees’ freedom of choice, freedom of employment, the right to medical confidentiality and informed consent, one would expect it would be the subject of heated discussions. But instead of hosting such public discussions on the ethical, epidemiological and judicial merits of such radical legislation, the media chose to frame the story as a conflict between helpless and defenseless children and negligent teachers who refuse to vaccinate. A popular and rather prestigious news site ran the headline: “Teachers refused to vaccinate and sent tens of children to isolation.”
The health minister commented that by refusing to vaccinate, teachers failed to uphold the most important part of their job – to protect children from harm.” Next to this item, readers were informed of a new study reporting that the vaccine has shown a 94% efficacy in preventing serious illness. And next to that, an alarming headline announced that the UK variant is running wild and hitting children at a worrying rate.
This type of coverage is misleading since vaccinated teachers can infect the children. Any of the children can send these children to self-isolation, as well as an unvaccinated parent. It is also possible for an unvaccinated teacher to be extra careful and ensure that the protective health guidelines are closely followed. Yet, these headlines depict vaccine hesitancy as irrational at best and criminal at worst. This critical mass of news is designed to enrage the viewers and morally blemish a new category of offenders – those who refuse to vaccinate. Conveniently framing the story as one of villains and victims, media coverage confuses the issues of vaccine hesitancy and objecting mandatory vaccination. In so doing, it does more than silence any objections to mandatory vaccination; it attempts to justify it.
Exaggeration and intensity of media content are potent tools with which to manufacture moral panic. Moral panic gathers converts by inflaming people’s fears and by depicting specific individuals as problems and symbols of “all that is wrong with the nation. A frightened and panicked public can be manipulated into relinquishing rights and freedoms, all in the name of public health.
It is exactly in times of crisis and uncertainty that the institutionalized media – public and private – should press politicians and decision-makers to suggest alternative measures that honor the laws of civil rights and personal freedoms. It needs to urge decision-makers to base their decisions on indisputable clinical evidence and share relevant information with the public – instead of concealing protocols and shortcutting legislative processes. Journalists should provide a public stage on which to debate the costs of any quickly formed legislation that would dramatically alter the power relationships between citizens and government.
The writer is head of the Dror (Imri) Aloni Center for Health Informatics, Ruppin Academic Center.