10 September 2023

Grift, Misinformation and the Long Arm of the Law

We often hear about the long arm of the law, suggesting that the justice system has far-reaching power. There is one place that the justice system doesn’t appear to be reaching: grifters who put people’s lives at risk.

These ‘influencers’ spread misinformation about snake oil cures for everything from diabetes to cancer. People die. No one pays the price. 

So, we’re learning that lying and killing people with lies isn’t a punishable crime. 

Mystery readers like myself have an innate need for justice to done. We want the arm of the law to be long enough to reach those who harm people, particularly if they kill them.

We’ve seen the rise of anti-vaccine misinformation reach so far into people’s psyche that not only are they eschewing COVID vaccines but also all vaccines - children are now dying of vaccine preventable disease like measles. For goodness sake, the news recently cited pet owners who are refusing vaccines, including rabies, for their pets because of autism fears.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has focused on the educational aspects and points out that, using various methods, 850,000 YouTube videos with harmful or misleading COVID-19 misinformation videos have been removed. However, this is a drop in an ever filling bucket. 

The WHO has joined various organizations asking for legal polices to stop misinformation but stop at outlining these policies - because it’s complicated. 

Legislators in various countries have made many attempts to rein in dangerous misinformation through regulation of tech giants. There have been suggestions of legal interventions that, “criminalize the dissemination of medical fake news”  The latter is so fraught with definitional problems that it’s not a good option, but certainly speaks to the increasing concern about putting people’s lives at risk.

So indulge me while I spitball some legal ideas with no legal training at all but with a strong sense of ‘what the heck can we do’? 

What if we start very small? What if there were some cases where people were harmed and they then sue? A few of those might make a dent in the growing rise of grifters. Nothing like fear and case law to stop wrong doing. 

Here’s a sample grift and my fantasy. The grift is real, you can find it here.

picture of scam message

Now, this may seem like a small problem compared to many other forms of misinformation and certainly, the reach of this is much smaller. But starting small makes it easier.

This woman claims to cure eyesight, so what if someone was ‘cured’ and then got into an accident driving? What if they sued her for damages? 

One small victory against grift might start a snowball effect. It’s a simple grift - eyesight cure - and a simple test - either eyesight is better or it’s not. I’m a fan of starting simple. 

It also is the extension of existing laws protecting people. If a doctor gives medical advice or therapy in the form of pills etc. and a patent is harmed, that doctor not only risks the loss of their medical license, but also jail time. So why not extend this to all medical therapies? 

While I’m spitballing and fantasizing, here’s another one: drugs for every disease need to follow rigorous testing guidelines. What is stopping legislators from demanding this from all ‘cures’ for all diseases? Then the grifters could be held legally liable for damages or even sued for putting their ‘cures’ in the public domain. This simple levelling of the playing field for all cures is fair, understandable by the public and simply extends existing laws around medical interventions. legal and regulatory measures.

I know this seems simple – nay, simplistic – but there may be a place for simple, clear solutions that start small, alongside looking at large scale changes to social media content. There is less support for stopping misinformation when it is an abstract concept and just the word ‘information’ gives an opening for demands for freedom of speech. To be clear, medical intervention is not covered under free speech protection, nor are drug manufactures able to claim free speech regarding the claims they make for their drugs. This also fits a justice model we are familiar with: if someone causes harm or death to another by any means, they are criminally responsible. This is one small way that the long arm of the law can extend its reach. 


  1. Mary, you and I could talk for a day at least, on this subject. I'm a former hospital director, and boy, the sad stories I could tell about people disbelieving experts in favour of the simpler too-good-to-be-true grift. with their beloved children as the guinea pigs. The first time I saw a child die in hospital of a preventable illness, still haunts me. Yes, we need to hold all claims to a standard. Good post.

  2. I'm so very sorry, Melodie. What an awful thing to happen. I'd love to talk all day.

  3. Mary, I don't understand how people can believe politicians over scientists. True, far left and far right politicians have demonized science, but what prevents people from seeing through nthe scam? I've come to despise the sentence, "Do your own research," which translates to "Listen to me and no one else."

  4. Mary, I'm 100% in your camp. I've watched too many people take too much snake oil, from ivermectin for Covid to collodial silver for whatever, and yet they're all anti-vaxxers because polio, measles, tetanus, etc., aren't that bad... Now I hear that some anti-vaxxers are thinking about not vaccinating their dogs for rabies. I think that calls for a lot of lawsuits. I think it all calls for a lot of lawsuits.


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