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Doctors Warn U.K. Lawmakers How Covid Misinformation Can Kill

Nate Lanxon

(Bloomberg) --

Rajeev Fernando, a medical doctor and first responder working in New York, told U.K. lawmakers that one of the biggest challenges he’d faced is public belief in conspiracy theories and bogus cures about Covid-19.

“I’ve also heard too many patients say Covid-19 is just like the flu; this misinformation has kept many at home thinking this will disappear,” Fernando said. “By the time some people are hospitalized, they’re already in multi-organ failure and death is inevitable.”

Executives from Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google were interviewed by British lawmakers on Thursday about how their companies handled the spread of medical misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The parliamentary committee leading the investigation published a selection of evidence it had gathered in advance of the questioning from front-line medical professionals. It was strongly worded, centering around how the public has suffered as a direct result of misinformation via social media.

Read more: Twitter Will Add Labels to Some Misleading Covid-19 Tweets

Thomas Knowles, a medical doctor in the U.K., said in his written evidence that he’d taken a call from a woman whose symptoms made him “strongly suspect that she was experiencing a heart attack,” he said.

Knowles said the woman told him she wouldn’t allow emergency medics in her home to take her to hospital because her doctor had informed her that she had to shield herself because of her other health conditions, and that she’d read on Facebook that it meant she’d definitely die if she went to hospital and caught it.

“I was forced to accept her right to decline treatment, and she received no specific care that I’m aware of,” he said.

Read more: Google Helps Place Ads on Sites Amplifying Covid Conspiracies

Facebook Response

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of product policy and counterterrorism, was also questioned about the company’s response to an aggressive post made by U.S. President Donald Trump concerning his response to the civil unrest that has swept across the country.

Bickert said she wasn’t aware of an open letter published by the New York Times from dozens of former Facebook employees this week. The employees were angry the social network hadn’t followed Twitter’s example of removing the post made by Trump.

“It’s a shocking indictment from a number of quite senior former employees,” lawmaker Kevin Brennan told Bickert in the hearing. “To me, it feels like there’s something rotten in the state of Facebook, but am I wrong?”

“I haven’t seen the letter,” Bickert said, but added that Facebook’s decision not to remove the President’s message was because it “did not violate” the company’s “long-standing policies.”

Deleted Posts

Google, Twitter and Facebook have all said in the past that tackling the spread of misinformation on their platforms was a priority. Twitter, for instance, has hidden or deleted posts that contain what it determined potentially harmful information. Google includes links to the World Health Organization at the top of search results for information about the virus.

Part of the research by the U.K. committee highlighted a statement from Duncan Maru, an epidemiologist and physician based in Nepal, who said his colleagues had treated patients suffering from consuming disinfectants “after reading online that this was a way to cure Covid-19. We can’t be fighting lies and saving lives at the same time.”

Read more: 5G Virus Conspiracy Theory Drives Phone Mast Attacks in U.K.

And Meenakshi Bewtra, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, concluded similarly: “It is extremely difficult to be fighting both the global pandemic and the infodemic on social media,” she said. “I have personally been contacted by people who have spent money they do not have on ‘remedies’ or engaged in various practices that have no efficacy whatsoever.”

The written statements, published by the U.K.’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sports committee on Thursday, will inform the questions the lawmakers ask tech companies at the hearing. It follows a similar hearing in April that followed the spread of a widely discredited conspiracy theory that 5G wireless technology is contributing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

(Updated with additional context throughout.)

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