Saturday 14 November 2020 / 10:30 PM Coronavirus / Digital / Jo Stevens

Labour calls for emergency legislation to “stamp out dangerous anti-vax content”

Ahead of the rollout of the Coronavirus vaccine, Labour has today called on the Government to urgently bring forward legislation that would include financial and criminal penalties for companies that fail to act to “stamp out dangerous anti-vaccine content”.

Ministers at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport this week refused to say how many posts and groups the unit tasked with tackling online disinformation has reported.

But analysis by the Labour Party reveals that dedicated anti-vaccination groups with hundreds of thousands of members on social media are still churning out disinformation – despite the Government and social media companies’ announcement last week of new measures to tackle the issue.

Writing to the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden MP, Shadow Culture Secretary Jo Stevens MP and Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth MP warn that the spread of disinformation online presents a “real and present danger” to vaccination efforts and call on the Government to bring forward online harms legislation.

The pair say that if the Government works with Labour on the issue, the party will provide votes to pass legislation.

The Government announced an agreement with social media giants last week. But the detail of the agreement revealed that the only commitment was not to profit from or promote flagged anti-vax content, raising questions as to why these groups aren’t simply being closed down.

Labour’s analysis shows:

  • Anti-vaccine social media groups unmasked by the Center for Countering Digital Hate months ago still remain open and active in spreading misinformation.
  • Numerous openly anti-vaccination Facebook groups containing nearly 100,000 Facebook users can be found within seconds of logging on to the platform in the UK.
  • Worryingly, anti-vaccination disinformation is spreading unchecked on newer forms of social media. On TikTok the hashtag ‘#vaccinesaredangerous’ has had almost 800,000 views – and warnings about misinformation are almost non-existent.
  • The spread is not limited to social media companies: the Government’s own petitions website lays bare the growing organised threat posed by anti-vaccination groups, with dozens of anti-vaccination petitions, some with almost 200,000 signatories.
  • Videos featuring prominent anti-vaxxers on YouTube are still featuring advertising generating income for the platform.
  • Groups engaged with tackling extremists warn that anti-vaccination conspiracy is proving ripe recruiting ground for the far right.

Jo Stevens MP, Labour’s Shadow Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, said:

“The Government has a pitiful track record on taking action against online platforms that are facilitating the spread of disinformation. It has been clear for years that this is a widespread and growing problem and the Government knows, because Labour has been warning them for some time, that it poses a real threat to the take up of the vaccine.

“This is literally a matter of life and death and anyone who is dissuaded from being vaccinated because of this is one person too many.”

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said:

“Despite Big Tech’s promises, Google is still funding anti-vax misinformation websites by placing advertisements on them, while Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube give well-known anti-vaxxers a platform to spread dangerous conspiracy theories and lies to millions of users.

“Throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, Big Tech has made bold claims of intent, but failed to follow through with effective action. It is vital that there are sanctions when social media companies fail to fulfil their duty of care to users and society at large. The Government must stop falling for Big Tech’s excuses, and introduce financial and criminal penalties for failures that lead to serious harm.

“We have all done our bit to contain Coronavirus. It’s beyond time for social media companies and regulators to do their bit too.”

Ends

 

Notes to editors

  • Letter from Jonathan Ashworth MP and Jo Stevens MP to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport:

Dear Secretary of State,

We are writing to you regarding the rise in disinformation around vaccines. As you will know, last year the World Health Organization (WHO) described vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health.

News that the UK can now look forward to the prospect of a vaccine in the coming months is welcome. It’s now vital urgent plans are in place to ensure take up.

While many people described as ‘hesitant’ will have questions that good public health messaging will be able to answer, we nonetheless have deep concerns that the success of the vaccination programme has already been and will be further undermined by the tsunami of anti-vax content on social media.

We have a proud and successful history in the UK when it comes to routine vaccine uptake. But there have been setbacks in recent years. Last year, we lost our measles-free status after years of falling vaccination rates. Meanwhile, the Royal Society For Public Health (RSPH) warned last year that social media was propagating negative messages about vaccination, particularly for parents.

Our historic strength in vaccine uptake must not be taken for granted. Many nations have seen vaccine uptake drop following the wide sharing of disinformation.

Globally, reported willingness to accept a vaccine is currently below that needed for herd immunity. In a new study Professor Heidi Larson, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project has warned that further exposure to disinformation could erode that even further.

Our research shows that groups flagged months ago to social media companies remain active, while the disinformation that the platforms facilitate is attracting hundreds of thousands of views.

We are worried that the threat this poses is not being matched by the measures taken by the Government to combat it.

While we welcomed the creation of a disinformation unit within government it has been disappointing that ministers have been unable to provide any information on its work or to say how much content it has reported to social media companies for removal.

The announced collaboration with social media companies last week was welcome but feels grossly inadequate with a promise by them to remove only the content which is flagged by government and which generates profit.

What we need is action now and – since these companies have been unable to take action themselves – we are calling on the Government to introduce emergency legislation which would include financial and criminal penalties for continued failure to act.

Labour would give the Government the votes it needs to get such a bill through the House of Commons.

One person who does not take the vaccine because of this harmful content is one too many.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Ashworth MP

Jo Stevens MP

  • The Government this week refused to say how many posts and groups the unit tasked with tackling online disinformation has reported https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2020-11-10/113582
  • Petitions on the Government’s website around vaccines have attracted nearly 200,000 signatures https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/323442
  • Last year the UK was stripped of its measles-free status. This was linked to ‘fears that growing numbers of people are not getting immunised because of “dangerous” myths about vaccines.’ https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/30/sharp-rise-in-measles-in-england-amid-fears-over-anti-vaxxers
  • Latest figures show that fewer children are being vaccinated against potentially fatal illnesses. The number of children receiving the five in one vaccine (which whooping cough is part of) (DTaP/IPV/Hib) also fell to 95.1% of children, the lowest rate since 2008.