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Boris Johnson has been urged to act after two more Conservative MPs were linked to figures spreading Covid conspiracy theories or making discredited claims.
Last week it emerged that Desmond Swayne, a former Tory minister, encouraged anti-lockdown street protesters to “persist” and suggested NHS capacity figures were being “manipulated” to exaggerate the impact of the virus.
Questions are now being asked about the judgement of a further two MPs: Andrew Bridgen – who defended Swayne in an interview on the YouTube channel of a controversial former BBC journalist whose posts have been taken down by YouTube for spreading false information about Covid – and Adam Afriyie, MP for Windsor.
It comes as the government is battling against baseless online conspiracy theories and misinformation.
After refusing to apologise for telling an anti-lockdown group that NHS statistics on the virus “appear to have been manipulated” and risks to the health service were “manageable”, Swayne gave an interview to the same activist who Bridgen spoke to last week, Anna Brees.
The latest cases prompted Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, to call on the prime minister to “wake up” to the threat of disinformation and conspiracy theories being legitimised or perpetuated from within his party’s ranks.
The chief executive of the Royal Statistical Society, Stian Westlake, also told the Guardian: “When it comes to a matter of life and death like Covid, misinformation can kill. Public figures have a duty to look carefully into the statistical evidence, and to think twice about the views and voices they promote.”
Brees has given extensive airtime to dissemination of baseless conspiracy theories about links between 5G technology and Covid-19 and has posted about “just asking questions” concerning Pizzagate, the baseless QAnon theory that led to real-world violence and harassment. YouTube confirmed that it had acted on a number of occasions to remove footage posted by Brees for breaching guidelines on medical misinformation.
Meanwhile, Afriyie, a member of the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, tweeted in October that he had been “reflecting on the scientific advice” around Covid and called for “perhaps a public conversation between Ivor Cummins et al and mainstream scientific advisers”.
Cummins is an Irish chemical engineer who has promoted discredited claims about the pandemic. In a YouTube video viewed more than 1.7m times, he claimed that no new waves of the virus were coming because most people were by now immune.
Cummins, whose past output typically focused on diet and heart disease, has compared public health strategies to Nazi propaganda and has shared anti-vaccine material. He recently deleted a retweet of a post showing a photo of the entrance of Auschwitz in which the infamous slogan above the gates had been doctored to read “Vackzine macht frei” [vaccine makes you free]. When challenged, he replied on social media: “Super satire snowflake – get over it.”
Afriyie, one of a number of black cross-party MPs who made a video encouraging people to have the coronavirus vaccine, told the Guardian he continued to urge people to follow government health advice and get vaccinated as soon as possible.
He added: “Measured debate and freedom of speech, within limits, are particularly important when it comes to science, policy-making and pretty much everything else in life. Unfounded claims can be quickly undermined or strengthened when subject to scrutiny. Establishment thinking and conventional wisdoms have in the past been overturned on this basis.”
Rayner described the revelations as “deeply worrying” after Johnson declined to take action over Swayne. “The actions of Conservative MPs in legitimising, promoting and endorsing conspiracy theories and the individuals and platforms who propagate this dangerous and deadly disinformation severely undermines our national effort to vaccinate Britain, defeat this virus and puts lives at risk,” she said.
“The prime minister must now wake up to the threat of disinformation and conspiracy theories in his party’s ranks and ensure that action is taken against any Conservative MP who undermines our national effort to defeat the virus in this way.”
Daisy Cooper, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Fake news and misinformation networks pose one of the greatest threats to our liberal democracy, so it is alarming to see Tory MPs openly collaborating with fringe [websites] that have already been pulled up for peddling dangerous misinformation.”
Dr Stuart Ritchie, a lecturer at King’s College London, said that one of the challenges of holding such figures to account was that they often posed discredited theories as if they were “just asking questions about it”.
“So you have, for example, someone like Cummins, who is not expressing clear positions about vaccines but is retweeting lots of people who appear to be anti-vaccine and sharing what they are saying,” added Ritchie, one of those involved with the Conservative MP Neil O’Brien in a new online initiative aimed at countering Covid scepticism and disinformation.
In relation to the MPs, Ritchie added: “There is obviously an attraction – especially if you are not scientific-minded – in that if someone who appears to be an expert puts up a blog or a video and has lots of facts and figures that support the political arguments you want to make.”
The Guardian has approached Brees and Cummins for comment.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Take action on MPs supporting Covid conspiracy figures, PM told | Coronavirus