Bedford’s MPs have responded to Opposition demands that social media companies should face financial and criminal penalties if they fail to ‘stamp out dangerous anti-vaccine (anti-vax) content’.
In a letter to Oliver Dowden, the digital, culture and media secretary, Labour MPs Jo Stevens and Jonathan Ashworth warned of the ‘real and present danger’ that the spread of misinformation presents.
Mr Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said, during an interview with Sky News that, “Lots of people are going to have questions about the vaccine…asking questions about the vaccine is entirely legitimate.
“…but if you go on social media today, you can find poison, garbage that is spread, conspiracy theories suggesting the vaccine is being developed by big global business people who want to use it to insert microchips into people.”
Commenting on the recent efforts the government has made to tackle the spread of misinformation on social media, Richard Fuller, MP for North East Bedfordshire, said, “Last week, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden and Health Secretary Matt Hancock agreed with social media platforms new measures to limit the spread of vaccine misinformation and disinformation and help people find the information they need about any COVID-19 vaccine.
“At a virtual roundtable, Facebook, Twitter and Google agreed not to profit from or promote COVID-19 anti-vaccine disinformation and to work with authorities to promote scientifically accurate messages.
“Ministers also raised concerns about the length of time misleading and false information about coronavirus vaccines remains on platforms and the companies agreed to swifter action to tackle flagged content.
“I welcome this commitment with social media firms to promote authoritative sources of information so people have access to vaccine facts, not fiction.”
Mr Fuller’s comments relate to the government announcement that it had reached an agreement with social media platforms not to profit from or promote flagged anti-vax content.
It has been argued that the deal is not far-reaching enough, with critics asking why these groups weren’t being closed down instead of being allowed to actively spread misinformation.
Mohammad Yasin, MP for Bedford and Kempston, said, “We are facing a global crisis of widespread unverified information that is causing demonstrable harm to societies all over the world.
“Whether it’s fake news, or social media messages conjured in troll farms in hostile states, sophisticated systems exist to deliver messages directly to us that have the power to destabilise governments, confuse public health messaging and undermine democracy.
“The World Health Organisation warned that an ‘infodemic’ coincided with the pandemic.
“It is such a sorry state of affairs, that when we are so close to having a safe vaccine that will rid us of this virus, that many people feel so distrustful of the information they are getting that they would choose not to vaccinate themselves and their families.
“Vaccines don’t work unless enough people take the vaccine to reach herd immunity. So, it’s vital that the Government makes regaining public trust a priority, tackles disinformation at its source and brings in legislation to ensure the media platforms take a much harder stance on the groups that peddle dangerous disinformation and online harms.”
However, banning anti-vaxxers from social media platforms can add fuel to their fire.
Quoted in the Guardian, Adam Hadley, of the Online Harms Foundation, said, “Anti-vaxxers will still exist regardless of whether they are permitted to make their arguments online.
“A more sensible solution would be to require social media companies to run government adverts alongside anti-vaxxer content.
“Controversial ideas are best defeated by debating and debunking them rather than by effectively banning people from talking about them.
“When that happens, these debates tend to move to the fringes of the internet and the offline world, where they are often exploited by extremist groups whose only aim is to stoke division and discontent.”