The government should bring forward emergency legislation to “stamp out” dangerous anti-vax misinformation ahead of the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine, Labour has said.
The shadow culture secretary, Jo Stevens, and the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, have written to the government warning that “our historic strength in vaccine uptake must not be taken for granted” as the prospect of a treatment for the virus looms.
Keir Starmer’s shadow ministers are calling for financial and criminal penalties for social media companies that fail to censor posts promoting anti-vaccination content, which they note is rampant on those platforms.
The opposition ministers say anti-vaccination groups with almost 100,000 users can be found within seconds of logging on to Facebook.
An analysis by a think tank, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, suggests that misinformation and disinformation about vaccines is also spreading on newer forms of social media, such as TikTok, where the hashtag #vaccinesaredangerous has almost 800,000 views.
In addition, dozens of anti-vaccination petitions have been posted on the government’s website, some with almost 200,000 signatures.
“The government has a pitiful track record on taking action against online platforms that are facilitating the spread of disinformation,” said Ms Stevens.
“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.”
In the joint letter, the two shadow secretaries of state said that “groups flagged months ago to social media companies remain active”, despite commitments by the government and industry.
Last week, social media giants agreed a package of measures with ministers to tackle anti-vaccine misinformation. Facebook, Twitter and Google promised to “step up work with public health bodies to promote factual and reliable messages” and committed to “swifter responses to flagged content”.
The digital secretary, Oliver Dowden, said that “Covid disinformation is dangerous and could cost lives”, and that there was "much more that can be done" to counter it.
However, the government has stopped short of saying such misinformation should necessarily be removed, instead raising the prospect that it could instead be de-monetised, given that “making money from this dangerous content would be wrong”.
Imran Ahmed, a former Labour adviser who runs the Centre 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.”
Free speech campaigners however warned that the approach could be counterproductive and “push the argument underground”.
“In the midst of a public health emergency ensuring that there is accurate information about treatments and vaccines is key,” Ruth Smeeth, chief executive of Index On Censorship told The Independent.
"However we can’t ignore that people may challenge and push back against the scientific facts. Surely the answer isn’t to ban the anti-vaxxers but to explain why they are wrong on every available platform.
"Demonstrate why the science is right rather then push the argument underground where rational argument will be lost."
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