How do you stop fake news about Covid? Not by silencing scientists who ask difficult questions

Carl Heneghan is an epidemiologist first and foremost, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford, probably many other things – good citizen, well-liked family member – and then, way down the list, a person on Twitter. In other words he doesn’t create social media storms for fun, nor does he have any track record of contrarianism. So how does such a person get banned, as Heneghan was briefly last week, from a social media platform that, famously, has trouble keeping abreast of racial slurs and death threats?

Heneghan published a study that suggested the number of people who had died from Covid may have been exaggerated. His final conclusion was that we still had no idea how many people have died because UK health statistics agencies use inconsistent definitions. This was enough to mark him out, albeit briefly, as a Covid denier, which in turn put him in the same camp as anti-vaxxers.

Heneghan is not a sceptic in the style of Lord Sumption, who famously told a woman with stage four cancer that her life was “less valuable”; nor is he a fundamentalist libertarian, opposing lockdown measures on the grounds that nobody’s life is worth more than the hero’s right to go out for a cappuccino. Instead, since the start of the pandemic, Heneghan has – often unfashionably – been centring vulnerable people in public health, taking a gestalt view of health impacts, asking multiple questions at once: what does loneliness do to older people? What does disruption of routine do to the mentally ill? What decisions could a dutiful citizen make to protect others, and could we not find some way to normalise thoughtful and responsible behaviour before we isolate the already isolated?

This isn’t really a defence of Heneghan, who is back on Twitter now. Rather, there is a fault in the conception of disinformation and how to prevent its spread. Fake news can’t be combated with blanket rules against anti-vaxxers; it can only be identified by those with a good working knowledge of real news – ideally, those who create real news. We have been trying to separate the business of gathering news from the business of disseminating it all century. It’s time to admit the experiment has failed.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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