BMJ news: 'Taking down online scientific misinformation isn’t necessary, as most people don’t believe it, says Royal Society'

25 January, 2022

BMJ: Taking down online scientific misinformation isn’t necessary, as most people don’t believe it, says Royal Society

BMJ 2022; 376 doi: (Published 21 January 2022)

Cite this as: BMJ 2022;376:o182 [restricted access]

This news item in The BMJ refers to a new report from the Royal Society: 'Most people in the UK agree with the scientific consensus on key issues such as vaccination and climate change and believe that the internet has improved the public’s understanding of science, finds a new report from the Royal Society. The report, which investigated the effects of scientific misinformation online, concluded that removing harmful information from the internet could actually make the situation worse...'

The Royal Society says: 'The report highlights how online misinformation on scientific issues, like climate change or vaccine safety, can harm individuals and society. It stresses that censoring or removing inaccurate, misleading and false content, whether it’s shared unwittingly or deliberately, is not a silver bullet and may undermine the scientific process and public trust. Instead, there needs to be a focus on building resilience against harmful misinformation across the population and the promotion of a “healthy” online information environment.'

The full report can be downloaded here:

COMMENT (NPW): This is a 100-page comprehensive report that includes many recommendations, one of which is: 'Governments and social media platforms should not rely on content removal as a solution to online scientific misinformation.' The supporting text starts 'Society benefits from honest and open discussion on the veracity of scientific claims...' The report suggests 'mitigation' may be a better approach: 'Examples of mitigations include demonetising content (eg by disabling ads on misinformation content); focusing on reducing amplification of

those messages by preventing viral spread or regulating the use of algorithmic recommender systems; and annotating content with factcheck labels.'


Another recommendation says 'The UK Government should invest in lifelong, nationwide, information literacy initiatives'. Indeed the report says 'this concept of ‘building resilience’ underpins the recommendations of this report, focusing more on proactive steps rather than after-the-event interventions.'

I wouild caution that although health literacy is important, we should not rely on building personal health literacy as a solution to online scientific misinformation, any more than removal or mitigation. The key issue is about the ability to differentiate reliable information from misinformation. Personal health literacy is just one aspect of health literacy, as I learned this week from a health literacy expert Orkan Okan @orkanokan_ on Twitter. When we think of #healthliteracy we should think not only of #personalhealthliteracy but also: signposting, standards, regulation, surveillance. policy, #organizationalhealthliteracy and #personalhealthliteracy. A 'comprehensive approach' is needed.

Best wishes, Neil

Coordinator, HIFA Project on Library and Information Services