Digital pandemic of misinformation threatens our best hope of defeating Coronavirus
Social media platforms are rapidly becoming a sewer of misinformation which risks eroding public trust in any potential coronavirus vaccine. Ministers must do “whatever it takes” to counter this damaging discourse.
Just 12 months ago, nobody could have imagined how much the world was about to change and the extreme level of disruption that was set to plague all our lives. Bringing an end to the Covid-19 pandemic is an ambition each one of us now craves.
Sadly, there are no “silver bullet” solutions to this crisis and the future has scarcely looked less certain. Individuals, families, and businesses across the country are unable to plan from one week to the next, many have suffered intolerable loss, and the UK Government has lost control of the virus once again.
Many communities are waiting with bated breath for news of a vaccine – which could be our best hope of bringing an end to this pandemic. But if the government fails to take firm and decisive action fast, a burgeoning digital pandemic of misinformation about vaccines threatens our best possible hope of an exit strategy.
Today, I’m leading a debate in Parliament to call on the government to bring forward a holistic, cross-government strategy to counter the swelling litany of falsehoods about vaccines we now see circulating online.
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media, I’ve been keenly keeping my eye on how much misinformation is spreading on social media platforms – and crucially, what the social media giants are doing about it. You don’t have to look far to realise that some corners of these platforms are rapidly becoming a sewer of misinformation which risks eroding public trust in any potential coronavirus vaccine, before one is even identified.
Recent polling from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate lays bare that 31 per cent of the British public would now be hesitant to have a coronavirus vaccine if one becomes available. A UCL study has also shown that barely half of people say they are “very likely” to get vaccinated. This doesn’t merely present a risk for those individuals – it presents a risk to each and every one of us, our loved ones, and our wider communities.
The CCDH’s study showed that so-called “anti-vax” social media accounts now have 58 million followers and this number is growing rapidly. The 147 largest accounts have amassed over 7.8 million new followers since 2019, representing a staggering increase of 19 per cent.
We simply can’t afford to wait for the long-overdue online harms legislation next year – this needs tackling now
Facebook is overwhelmingly the leading host of such potentially dangerous information, but the platform is by no means alone. Across YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and various other popular social media sites, this virus of misinformation now presents a real threat for our ability to control the real, and deadly, coronavirus.
Some of the social media giants have taken steps to combat anti-vax misinformation. This week Facebook announced that they’ll be banning anti-vax adverts from its platform. But banning ads alone simply isn’t good enough as it ignores the ballooning number of organic posts and high-profile oxygenators who are willing to spread them.
Conversely, the commitment YouTube made this week to remove false content about vaccines is to be commended – and sets a bar which the other platforms must meet. Facebook and Twitter have also started to flag information as disputed, but this needs to go much further. Information that is shared that is palpably false or potentially dangerous needs to be removed; regardless of whether it has been posted by a President, an F1 driver, or Joe Bloggs at Number 73. And if there are social media companies that fail to go further – the government must compel them to act. We simply can’t afford to wait for the long-overdue online harms legislation next year – this needs tackling now.
It’s clear that the government also needs to overhaul its communications strategy in tandem with taking action with the social media giants. That’s why I’m calling on ministers to bring forward a 6-month plan to promote information about the rigorous processes through which vaccines are approved. Some people will have understandable concerns about vaccinations – but right now the government’s sluggish efforts to counter the anti-vax movement is leading more people to be taken in by at best, ill-informed, or, at worst, dangerously false arguments and conspiracy theories.
Back in March, the government promised to do “whatever it takes” to help the British people get through this crisis. Now we know the threat anti-vaxxers pose, it is self-evident that ministers must do “whatever it takes” to counter this damaging discourse.
We can – and must – break the circuit of this digital pandemic. If we fail, yet more lives and livelihoods could well be lost.
Chris Elmore is the Labour MP for Ogmore and chair of the APPG on Social Media.