Anti-vaccination posts on social media should be 'stamped out' - Labour

15 November 2020, 08:02 | Updated: 15 November 2020, 08:09

Labour is calling on the government to take greater action against anti-vaccination content on social media
Labour is calling on the government to take greater action against anti-vaccination content on social media. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Anti-vaccination posts on social media need to be "urgently stamped out" as a "matter of life and death", Labour has said.

The opposition has called for emergency legislation to "stamp out dangerous anti-vax content", following the announcement that a coronavirus vaccine could be rolled out by the end of the year.

Labour is pressing the government to bring forward legislation that would give ministers the power to penalise companies both financially and criminally that fail to remove or highlight such content.

The party warned that dedicated anti-vax groups with hundreds of thousands of members on the likes of Twitter and Facebook are "churning out disinformation" on the issue.

Shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens and shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth have written to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden insisting that the "spread of disinformation online presents a real and present danger" to vaccination efforts.

The two shadow cabinet members have urged the government to "bring forward online harms legislation".

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Ms Stevens 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."

Labour insisted that the government's work with social media platforms, aimed at anti-vaccination content, does not go far enough.

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The two shadow cabinet ministers said in their letter to the culture secretary: "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."

A government spokesperson said: "Letting vaccine disinformation spread unchecked could cost British lives.

"We take this issue extremely seriously and have secured a major commitment from Facebook, Twitter and Google to tackle it by not profiting from such material, and by responding to flagged content more swiftly.

"We continue to work closely with social media firms to promote authoritative sources of information so people have access to vaccine facts not fiction."