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When is it okay to shut down debate on controversial issues?

The coronavirus just may have had one positive effect. The world-wide race to develop an effective vaccine to slow the global pandemic seems to have temporarily overshadowed the influence of anti-vaccine activists, according to Tony Jaques. But, when is it okay to shut down debate on controversial issues?

Though it has to be said that prominent American anti-vaxxer Jordan Sather is putting his faith for a cure in “Miracle Mineral Supplement”, which contains bleach, while others are trying the “Silver Solution” elixir promoted by televangelist Jim Bakker, best known for going to prison for fraud.

The Attorney General of New York has just issued a cease and desist order against Bakker to stop him promoting the “anti-viral” concoction, which can cause kidney damage or worse. Which raises a core question. This legalistic approach may work to control dangerous products, but how do you combat dangerous ideas? And who’s to say which issues no longer warrant debate and need to be shut down?

Late last year The Conversation Australia – a not-for-profit commentary site for academics, funded by universities, government and business – announced that it would block climate change deniers and lock their accounts. Editor Misha Ketchell said: “It is counterproductive to present the evidence and then immediately undermine it by giving space to trolls. The hopeless debates between those with evidence and those who fabricate simply stalls action.”

There was predictable outrage by reactionary politicians and commentators about censorship and free debate and failure of academic rigour. However, the more important question here is, has it actually made any difference to the issue?

There was similar outrage about different moves across the last 12 months by Mailchimp, YouTube, Amazon, Pinterest, Netflix, Instagram, GoFundMe, Facebook and other social media platforms to limit the spread of anti-vaccination misinformation (although Facebook still hosts one of the largest anti-vaxx groups).

But again, has it had any long-lasting impact? As recently as December, Paul Barry on the ABC programme Media Watch was once again berating the state broadcaster for providing an unquestioning platform for an anti-vaxx activist. Barry has previously commented on the same topic: “To put it bluntly, there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust. It’s a journalist’s job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat ‘balance’. Especially when people’s health is at risk.”

In the midst of the current coronavirus crisis, it is easy to forget that just months ago we were worried about another highly infectious disease, when outbreaks of measles around the world because of low vaccination rates caused thousands of preventable deaths. No wonder the World Health Organization named the anti-vaccination movement one of their top threats to global health. And let’s also remember it’s just weeks since many in Australia were angered by headlines featuring denialists claiming no link between climate change and deadly bushfires.

Shutting down the debate on these controversial issues

Issues by definition are contested matters where there is genuine disagreement over facts or opinions. So what happens if there is no legitimate counter-argument? When there is no ‘other side’ to the debate? What happens if news media attempts at ‘balance’ simply produce false equivalency and give credibility to arguments which no longer warrant discussion?

These are important tests for the role of the news media in the way controversial social issues are reported. And they challenge the way issue managers deal with the media. No-one is arguing that this is a case for shutting down legitimate debate on every contentious topic. But it’s certainly clear – with #coronavirus raging and Donald Trump claiming noise from wind turbines causes cancer – that we need to help scientists communicate better.

Tony Jaques is the author of the forthcoming book, Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflicts (summer 2020, Rothstein Publishing).

Learn more about Reputation Risk, Cybersecurity Risk, and Crisis communication in Tony Jaques’ new book, Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict.tony-jaques-rothstein-publishing


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