You should always ask the hard questions and the hardest one to ask about Covid and free speech is why does the law tolerate anti-vaccine propaganda? The liberal exemption offered by John Stuart Mill’s harm principle does not apply. However unpopular it is to say it on the identitarian left, the harm principle holds that free societies must tolerate speech that is offensive and unpopular as long as it does not incite the physical harm of others.
But anti-vaxxers are inciting physical harm. Why do we have laws to punish the extremist speech of potential Islamist and neo-Nazi terrorists but no legal means of stopping concerted efforts to persuade people to risk their own lives and endanger the lives of others? Concerted efforts, I should add, usually directed by the privileged against the poor and the weak.
The anti-vaxx movement punches down and punches hard. Its leaders tend to be men and women from wealthy backgrounds. Andrew Wakefield, the son of a neurologist and former fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists. Robert Kennedy Jr, son of the better-known, and better man, Bobby Kennedy. Or they have religious power, most prominently Louis Farrakhan from the Nation of Islam.
They draw a large part of their audience from the poor, the poorly educated and ethnic minorities. The people placed at risk from Covid by overcrowded housing, obesity and frontline jobs in industries that do not allow the relative safety of home working are the people most likely to be fooled by lethal pseudo-science. The fight to vaccinate them is a fight for justice and against the ultimate injustice of their premature and preventable deaths.
I mentioned Wakefield to show we are not dealing with a new phenomenon. On 22 January 2001, a little over 20 years ago, the British government tried to stop his modern anti-vaxx movement before it could kill too many people. The Department of Health launched a £3m advertising campaign against the terrible fear that Wakefield inspired in parents that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine could make their children autistic. The full extent of the fraud that Wakefield, the most dangerous doctor Britain had produced since Harold Shipman, had perpetrated was yet to be exposed.
But public health officials knew his claim that MMR causes autism had to be wrong. Every other study had found that the vaccine was safe. If you didn’t vaccinate your children, the government said, they could suffer and maybe die. It was too late. The story was irresistible. The Lancet had given it the approval of a supposedly authoritative medical journal and much of the mainstream media, including, I am afraid, this newspaper, fell for it.
Once Wakefield’s financial conflicts of interest and misrepresentations of his findings came out, a new narrative emerged. In the words of Brian Deer, the old-fashioned newspaper hack who exposed the scandal that the editor of the Lancet and half of the media could not see, Wakefield moved on to present himself as the victim of big government and big pharma. They were destroying his career to cover up “horrific injuries” to children. If that refrain sounds familiar, it is because it echoes the self-aggrandising whinnies of the anti-vaxxers. We are dissidents, they cry, persecuted by the establishment, by the elite, by them.
An investigation by the Center for Countering Digital Hate found leading Covid deniers had boosted their social media audience by millions during the pandemic. Wakefield, along with Kennedy Jr and “alternative health” therapists, held a conference in October to discuss how to exploit the crisis. “All of the truths that we’ve been trying to broadcast for many, many years,” said Kennedy Jr. “Those seeds are landing on very fertile ground.” Politicians and much of respectable opinion demand tech companies ban fake health news. Facebook, Twitter and Google promised the British government they would do just that in October. I do not believe they will keep their word because their profits are tied up with keeping eyes on their sites for as long as possible. Facebook showed me its cynicism last week. I had written about Gary Matthews, an anti-vaxxer and Covid denier from Shrewsbury, who was killed by the virus he refused to believe existed. On his public Twitter feed, he endorsed “lockdown sceptics” from the journalistic elite – Julia Hartley-Brewer, Peter Hitchens, Mark Dolan and John Pilger – and retweeted their denunciations of masks, contact tracing apps and lockdowns. In private, he was a member of the hidden Shropshire Corona Resilience Network Facebook page, which was filled with posts damning the NHS and vaccines.
“After it’s been exposed in the national press, Facebook is bound to close it,” I assured my contacts in Shrewsbury. How naive I was. The page was still there when I looked yesterday because Facebook isn’t willing to threaten its profits by closing anything it can get away with keeping open. As the Center of Countering Digital Hate reported last year, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were failing to take action against more than nine in 10 posts reported for containing misinformation.
Even if the tech companies change their ways, it would be wrong in principle to ask them to take the place of the democratic state. It’s as if the Blair government of 2001 had said that journalists were free to repeat Wakefield’s quackery, while begging newsagents to stop selling their newspapers.
My argument for free speech is that the power of the censor is more frightening than the menace posed by the censored, although Covid has made me less confident than I was. You may think I’m wrong. But with a flood of propaganda threatening more people than Islamist and white nationalist terrorists ever managed, surely we can agree on this. We need to decide where we draw our lines. Free societies cannot leave profit-hungry social media sites, with near monopolistic control of the public square, to decide for us. Laws should govern what can and cannot be said and impartial judges and juries should administer them. If Covid has taught us anything, it is that we cannot continue to have our speech controlled by the whims of Californian tech conglomerates.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist