October 27, 2022

Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and misinformation from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network. Sign up here to receive it in your email every other Thursday.

A COVID-19 misinformation bill in California, AB 2098, is sparking controversy among doctors. Just passed, the bill will open legal pathways against healthcare workers that spread misinformation to their patients about COVID-19. Some oppose the bill, contending it doesn’t allow for reasonable dissent from consensus, while others dispute this, arguing the bill focuses on considerable deviations from accepted science.  

Notably, the bill does not include any provisions for healthcare professionals’ behavior on social media; it only concerns direct provider-to-patient communication.

AB 2098 defines misinformation as “false information that is contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care,” and classifies its spread by physicians as “unprofessional conduct.” Those found guilty of such conduct face a slate of disciplinary possibilities, including fines, license suspensions or revocations, and public reprimands.

“California’s anti-misinformation bill is well intentioned. But it’s a bad idea,” reads a Washington Post headline by health columnist and physician Leana Wen.

“Consider how long it took the CDC to acknowledge that the coronavirus is airborne. Should doctors have been censured for recommending N95 masks before they were accepted as an effective method for reducing virus transmission?” Wen wrote.

Wen argued that many doctors would advise patients to delay getting the booster to time it closer to winter holidays, and some would not recommend boosters for children who have already had the virus. Both pieces of advice go against federal guidance, according to Wen, and would make providers vulnerable to license suspensions or revocations. 

“While well-intentioned, this legislation will have a chilling effect on medical practice,” Wen wrote. “Is it really right for physicians to be threatened with suspension or revocation of their license for offering nuanced guidance on a complex issue that is hardly settled by existing science?”

Other doctors, such as David Epstein, a contributor to Physician’s Weekly, assert “there is a misconception that the government is deciding on what is the correct medical information as opposed to the medical community.”

“I do not feel threatened by AB 2098. I do not feel that it limits the autonomy of a physician to practice adequately, concerning the diagnosis, management and prevention of COVID-19,” Epstein wrote. “It really focuses on extreme deviation from scientific standards of care and consensus that are supported by the existing science and experts.”

Epstein argued that the abundance of misinformation surrounding the coronavirus, vaccine and the pandemic has led to unnecessary “morbidities and mortalities.”

“Scientific research is being performed in an attempt to save lives in a compressed period of time, we have to use the evidence that we have at the moment. As evidence builds to support one healthcare precept or an opposing one over time, the medical community pivots,” Epstein wrote. “When someone argues that trying to stem the flow of misinformation in healthcare is somehow unscientific, censorship, against the spirit of physicians’ ability to challenge science or independently practice medicine, and promotes dogma, I have to question their understanding of science.”

Interesting fact-checks


Quick hits


From the news: 

  • Election disinformation in Brazil concerns analysts, mediaFrom claims of rigged polls to accusations that the presidential front-runners are cannibals or Satan worshippers, Brazil’s election has been marred by disinformation.” (Voice of America, Graham Keeley) 
  • COVID-19 Misinformation: The Flip Side of ‘Knowledge is Power’ “The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is providing $3.8 million to a study led by Anish Agarwal, MD, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine and the deputy director of the Center for Digital Health in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sharath Chandra Guntuku, PhD, an assistant professor in Computer and Information Science in Penn Engineering and a senior fellow in the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, to study the COVID-19-related social media habits of four different populations. (Penn Medicine News, Frank Otto)

From/for the community: 

  • A Turkish fact-checking organization, Teyit, created a tool kit to battle misinformation. “Teyit presents the Emergency Confirmation Kit to its users based on its knowledge and experience so far. With the kit, which includes the basic methods and approaches by which users can confirm suspicious information on the Internet, Teyit ensures that users have tools against false information at any time. This kit, which aims to empower users against misinformation, is available here.”
  • The International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute has awarded $450,000 in grant support to organizations working to lessen the impact of false and misleading information on WhatsApp. In partnership with Meta, the Spread the Facts Grant Program gives verified fact-checking organizations resources to identify, flag and reduce the spread of misinformation that threatens more than 100 billion messages each day. The grant supports eleven projects from eight countries, including India, Spain, Nigeria, Georgia, Bolivia, Italy, Indonesia and Jordan. Read more about the announcement here.
  • Stay tuned for more information on legal grant recipients in future additions of Factually.


Thanks for reading. If you are a fact-checker and you’d like your work/projects/achievements highlighted in the next edition, send us an email at factually@poynter.org by next Tuesday.

Corrections? Tips? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at factually@poynter.org

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Seth Smalley is a reporter at Poynter and the IFCN. Get in touch at seth@poynter.org or on Twitter @sethsalex.
Seth Smalley

More News

Back to News