Skip to main content

Vaccine Misinformation Online

Volume 682: debated on Monday 19 October 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Mr Deputy Speaker, may I thank you and Mr Speaker for granting this debate? It is great to see Members from across the House in attendance this evening, and I hope that the issue that I am going to talk about will have widespread cross-party support.

I will cut straight to the chase: I have no time whatsoever for so-called anti-vaxxers, but I am afraid that the swelling evidence we have seen over the past few months of the pernicious impact of misinformation about vaccines now demands our attention, and it demands action.

Day after day, week after week in this place, we rightly come together to debate and discuss the best ways we can get on top of this virus and, ultimately, defeat it. Each one of us in this place knows that there is no silver-bullet solution to this public health and economic crisis, but we also know that identifying a clinically safe and effective vaccine is the damned nearest we are likely to get. However, I am afraid that the rapid and incessant corrosion of public confidence in vaccines propagated by the anti-vax movement risks threatening the success of the most powerful future tool we could have in our armoury.

Let me say at the outset that I am not against scrutiny of vaccines or people raising legitimate questions that may need answering. The public have a right to scrutinise vaccination policy as much as any other Government policy, but that must be done in an informed and measured way, based on facts rather than nonsensical conspiracy theories involving Bill Gates, or anyone else for that matter. Part of that process has to involve the Government being much more proactive about countering some of the scare stories and falsehoods peddled by the anti-vax movement, which play on people’s understandable fears.

The hon. Gentleman is making great progress, and he is talking about an issue that is of severe importance to my constituency, which has a 10% lower than average vaccination rate for measles, mumps and rubella. The misinformation that is being spread is palpable, and it is dangerous not only to schoolchildren but to adults. Will he therefore expand a little on the role of education in ensuring that we can inform people and re-energise their understanding and confidence that they are taking vaccines that will help them?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and thank him for that intervention, for two reasons. First, it is very worrying that the UK no longer has measles-free status. That is a real worry for us all. Secondly, on education, there is a huge piece of work to be done where people are rightly questioning vaccine development processes. We are taught that it takes many years to develop vaccines. However, what people are not acknowledging through their legitimate questions is that the whole world is now looking for a vaccine. There is more funding and more availability of scientists working towards trying to solve this problem, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely.

In private, I think even Ministers would agree that far too much of the Government’s response to the crisis has been typified by being too slow: too slow to lockdown, too slow to support business, too slow to test and trace effectively—but possibly too fast to Barnard Castle. But when all is said and done, I genuinely appreciate the huge pressure Ministers have been under over the past seven months. Mistakes are inevitable and hindsight is all too often a wonderful thing. The message I want to send to those on the Government Benches is that when it comes to the anti-vax movement, we do not need the benefit of hindsight. We simply cannot afford to be too slow yet again. We know that dangerous misinformation is eroding public trust in a potential future vaccine. We know that a lot of misinformation is being spread online and we know that the social media giants are systematically failing to act.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on a very timely topic. I was a paediatric physiotherapist and I have seen the devastating effects of brain damage caused by simple diseases such as measles. Does he agree that we need to publicise the lasting ill effects of measles and long covid, and demonstrate the benefits of vaccines?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I have been contacted by other Members who could not attend this evening. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) has received correspondence from parents saying that they will not have the MMR, for reasons that can only be deemed to be false. As I said to the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and as I am sure the Minister will say, it is perfectly legitimate to question vaccines. What is not legitimate is to base views on falsehoods. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) is quite right, through her professional career before coming to this place, that catching measles can have a long-term negative impact.

With the benefit of foresight, and given the additional oxygen that the wild, ill-informed and baseless conspiracy theories will inevitably continue to receive over the next six months, the Government must bring forward a holistic cross-Government plan to counter this growing movement and bring the social media giants to heel. The anti-vax movement is nothing new—in fact, it has been around since the days of smallpox—but what we must not lose sight of in 2020 is the exponential levels of oxygen that the internet and in particular social media platforms give to such damaging falsehoods. As chair of the all-party group on social media, I have been keenly following the activities of various platforms since the pandemic began. It must be said that many sites have been doing some really positive work to try to promote reliable sources of information at a time when the need to tackle misinformation could scarcely be more crucial. Yet what many of the social media giants are repeatedly failing to do is proactively take down the burgeoning levels of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines spread on their platforms.

Anti-vax misinformation may not be displayed on billboards around the country, but growing evidence suggests it is starting to reach and influence as many people as if it were. We have already seen this digital pandemic spilling out on to our streets. The frankly scary protests we are seeing in ever greater numbers should alarm us all and underline the need for decisive action.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this topical and pertinent issue. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate says that 31% of the British public would be hesitant to have a coronavirus vaccine if one becomes available. Does he not agree that that is incredibly disheartening? The Government must wholeheartedly, with transparent information, enter into this online debate now before people’s minds are warped by anti-vaxxers who have had success in seeing MMR take-up drop from 95% to 87%. We cannot allow them to take hold of the coronavirus debate, given the massive consequences for the general public right across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I have done significant work with the CCDH over recent months to try to look at this very issue. He may have taken my very next sentence almost word for word—would you believe it, Mr Deputy Speaker?—so I will not repeat it, but I agree with him. The serious point is that we need to tackle the issue now, through Members of Parliament, the Government, the official Opposition and the smaller parties, such as the one he represents. We all have a duty in this House to make sure we get the truth out about vaccine development and all its benefits.

Online vaccine misinformation is not merely a risk to those individuals who will not be vaccinated; it presents a risk to each and every one of our constituents and their loved ones, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. The CCDH’s study showed that anti-vax social media accounts have 58 million followers, and that number is growing rapidly. The 147 largest accounts have amassed more than 7.8 million new followers since 2019, representing a staggering increase of 19%.

Facebook is overwhelmingly the leading host of such potentially dangerous information, but that 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 to our ability to control the real and deadly coronavirus. It is clear that that is borne out in our communities. Research from the Royal Society for Public Health shows that as many as two in five parents with children under 18 in the UK have reported exposure to negative messages about vaccination online sometimes or often.

The problem did not arise overnight, yet it is exponentially on the rise and has, in part, been fuelled by many oxygenators in the public eye. The list of celebrities who have shared anti-vax content or their anti-vax views online grows painfully longer as we continue to respond to this crisis—Madonna, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic and Kanye West are just some of the biggest names with the largest followings. When we delve deeper into this web, the number of influential people helping to propagate at best ill-informed and at worst downright conspiracy theorist nonsense is truly alarming. I know that several celebrities have since clarified their stance after public pressure, but that is often when much of the damage has already been done. It is not surprising that the World Health Organisation found last year that vaccine hesitancy was one of the top 10 threats to global public health.

Politicians have a role too, of course. It is not useful to have a President of the United States who increasingly gives the impression that he is rushing to approve a vaccine for political expediency, rather than purely for the sake of public health. That only further corrodes trust in the international scientific community, who I have no doubt are working with the utmost integrity and precision. That shows why the rigorous process through which a vaccine receives approval urgently needs to be better communicated to the public. People need to feel reassured about the safeguards that are in place to ensure that new treatments and vaccines meet robust national and international standards. Ministers say that they are doing that, but this strategy is being enveloped in the increasingly chaotic communications that emanate from No. 10 and right across Government.

I have seen how challenging messaging on this issue can be. Since repeatedly raising issues around anti-vaxxers in this place and beyond, I have received countless messages from people actively promoting the conspiracy theories. At one point, there was even a suggestion that I was no better than the Nazis. For me, that has only underlined how important it is that we take much firmer action to counter much of the ill-informed nonsense we see online.

As I have repeatedly said, the social media giants are largely failing proactively to take down the burgeoning levels of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines that is shared and promoted on their platforms. I welcome Facebook’s decision last week to ban anti-vax adverts from its platform, but that plainly does not go far enough. We are now seven months into this pandemic, and Facebook has continually dragged its feet on anti-vax misinformation. Banning ads alone will not starve the many anti-vax Facebook groups of the oxygen they thrive on. The fact that Mark Zuckerberg is still willing to trouser money from ads that push back against Government policies that promote vaccines underlines just how much further we have to go. Mr Zuckerberg has said that Facebook will not actively take down all anti-vax misinformation. For me, that would represent a breach of the statutory duty of care that the Government’s new legislation is set to impose on the tech giants next year.

As has become typical with Mr Zuckerberg, instead of providing clear leadership and action, he is offering mere qualification and dangerous prevarication. If he does so because of financial concerns, that is shameful. If he does so because he actually believes it, that is terrifying. It is pleasing to see that Facebook, Twitter and others are starting to hide posts with warnings when claims are disputed or palpably false. I firmly believe that regardless of who has posted the content, they should continue do so without fear or favour. Whether it is posted by Presidents, F1 drivers or Joe Bloggs from No. 73, this poison of misinformation must be countered before it is allowed to become yet more potent.

I know that the Government have held meetings with representatives from the social media companies on this issue, and I would be grateful if the Minister could outline the outcome of those discussions. In July, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care met Sir Nick Clegg—formerly of this parish, and now Facebook’s vice-president for global affairs and communications—about this issue. I have repeatedly asked for clarity about the outcome of that meeting. I have been told by the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), via written questions that a “wide-ranging discussion” took place and that the Government are working with Facebook to

“promote positive messages about vaccination.”

Today, I ask the Minister to go into more detail about that wide-ranging discussion and the precise firm commitments that were made. In particular, was section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act 1996 discussed? What changes, other than those that I have stated, has Facebook implemented since that meeting?

Social media companies can do more. Only this week, YouTube updated its medical misinformation policy and now prohibits content that includes claims about covid-19 vaccinations that contradict expert consensus, local health authorities or the World Health Organisation. For example, content claiming that a vaccine will kill people or implant a microchip in a recipient’s body will be removed under the expanded policy.

YouTube says it has done that to allow it to take robust action should anti-vaccination conspiracy theories continue to grow as progress towards a potential vaccine is made. Of course, we will have to see how proactively it is enforced, but it is a really welcome step that will help to dilute the deluge of misinformation that is plaguing many platforms. I commend YouTube for its action and I urge the other big players to follow its lead and go further where necessary.

Misinformation is just one of the many dangers that people face online, which is why I have been calling for Government action on online harms since I first set up the APPG in 2018. The online harms White Paper is certainly a step in the right direction, but the pandemic has underlined how delaying the legislation only allows pent-up problems to deepen before our very eyes.

We know that social media giants will not adopt the changes that we all need without them being written into law, so why are we waiting so long for that to happen? Social media platforms need to have a statutory duty of care for their users, and people must be provided with the same level of safety online as offline, but the changes that the Government will hopefully implement in the coming months cannot stop there. Ministers must establish a social media health alliance to fund research and education initiatives and establish clearer guidance for the public.

When we consider how quickly technology and social media have changed in the past decade, we can imagine how unrecognisable they could be by 2025, 2030 or further in the future. Funding research through a health alliance would us help to stay ahead of the game and aware of any emerging threats, and it would give us much needed time to take action. No hon. Member would say that cyber-space has not rapidly got out of control. That wild west will continue to grow yet wilder unless we fund vital research foresight.

We do not have to fund it, however. Again, that is where social media giants need to be made to step up and fulfil their moral responsibilities. The alliance can be funded by, say, a small 0.5% levy on the profits that social media platforms make. Social media users generate multimillion-pound profits for the tech giants every year; the least they can do is reinvest a negligible portion of their prosperity to help to improve the health, well-being and safety of their customers.

What else can the Government do? I understand that the Cabinet Office is working closely with the WHO and academics from the University of Cambridge to help to counter some of the antivax discourse, and I am aware that there are already some good examples of the Government trying to do this. The University of Cambridge’s new Go Viral! game, supported by the Cabinet Office, aims to help the public to better understand the techniques used to spread fake news and to identify and disregard misinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic. That is a good individual example of how communications can be tailored to different audiences to help to counter misinformation about vaccines and covid-19 more widely, but the Government need many more examples that are suitable for a range of audiences and much more widely promoted.

It would be useful if the Minister gave the House an update on that work and detail what practical steps the Government are putting in place to ensure that the issue is being taken seriously. I know that the Department is working with Public Health England, NHS Improvement and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on those issues, but I would like to hear more about what the Government are doing with the devolved Administrations.

The WHO calls the three key components that contribute to a decision not to vaccinate the three c’s: confidence, complacency and convenience. There can be confidence in the safety and efficiency of a vaccine, but also in the system that regulates and provides it. Complacency happens because, due to the success of vaccination, many people do not have experience of diseases that vaccination prevents, such as polio or tuberculosis. Therefore, they underestimate the potential impact of catching the disease. Convenience includes factors such as the cost and ease of obtaining a vaccination. When the Minister responds, I would be grateful if she explained precisely how the Government are addressing each of the three c’s. If they are not, I would like her to explain why.

We have all seen how Government communications can reach a wide audience when the Government have the political will to give campaigns the resources they need, from “Get ready for Brexit” to “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”. Government information can reach a wide audience if Ministers put their minds to it, so today I am calling on the Minister to bring forward an holistic, six-month, cross-Government strategy to better inform the public about the vigorous clinical procedures that are being followed in approving any covid-19 vaccine. Whether it be through myth-busting or making the process more transparent to the public at large, the Government need to start getting back on the front foot. A tidal wave of misinformation has already arrived on our shores, and without a clear communication strategy in advance of providing an effective and safe vaccine, I fear that a further tsunami of anti-vax falsehoods will fatally undermine the public health and economic wellbeing of our country. The Government promised to do “whatever it takes” to help the British people through this crisis. We know the threat that these anti-vax falsehoods pose, and 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 be lost.

I would like to start by thanking the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) for tabling this really important topic for debate, and for his wider work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social media, which does incredibly important work to draw attention to this vital issue. Vaccine misinformation and, indeed, disinformation are an important issue that the Government and I take incredibly seriously. It is vital that all UK citizens have access to accurate information; it is a key part of our democracy. At their worst, disinformation and misinformation can threaten our democratic freedoms and cause harm to individuals and to our society.

During a time of national crisis, it is even more important that people have access to accurate information about covid-19. Throughout the pandemic, really harmful misinformation and disinformation of many kinds have been observed online, including conspiracy theories about 5G, fake claims about the health risks of wearing masks and the promotion of dangerous and false covid-19 cures. These are just a few of the many falsehoods that have been circulating online, and their impact is not limited to the online environment. They have real-life consequences, ranging from people needlessly spending money on items to protect themselves, to an increased risk of individuals not following crucial public health advice and thereby putting their own and others’ health at risk. And of course, we saw the disgraceful acts of vandalism and harassment that were spurred on by the groundless 5G conspiracy theories.

We are also aware that some people are almost certainly exploiting covid-19 to target minority groups online. I recently met members of Britain’s East and South East Asian Network, who highlighted the increase in online racism that their members had experienced during covid-19. We are absolutely clear that there is no place for racism, offline or online. Hateful content on digital platforms is a growing problem in the UK. It inflicts harm on victims, creates and exacerbates social divisions and erodes trust in platforms. We cannot continue to put up with it.

Worryingly, as the hon. Gentleman has said, we are seeing significant amounts of vaccine misinformation online. Confidence in vaccines across the UK remains high, but it is only natural that people should have questions about the vaccines that are available to them and about how they have been developed. However, it is simply unacceptable that some individuals online should seek to exploit citizens’ legitimate questions and deliberately create and share vaccine falsehoods for their own personal, political, or, worst of all, financial gain. We have seen a range of baseless and, in some instances, absurd narratives being shared about vaccines, including by individuals in the public eye, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. They are much like those that we saw around 5G, and I will not give further time and attention to those groundless theories by repeating them here.

However, the act of sharing such falsehoods should not be confused with well-intentioned citizens asking perfectly understandable questions, as the hon. Gentleman said, including about how safe vaccines are. I remember the considerable misinformation that began to circulate about the MMR vaccine and its suggested link to autism in the early 2000s. I was a first-time mum at the time, and I found this false information, and the rate at which it spread, hugely unsettling and hugely worrying. That was of course in the days when social media was in its infancy. It did make a huge difference to a number of us who were mums at the time as to whether we would get our children immunised, and I am sure that it led to a rise in the number of measles cases subsequently. I urge those who have questions to seek advice from reputable sources such as the NHS and Public Health England, and to speak to trusted healthcare professionals.

I believe, as I think other Members would agree, that we need to have one message coming from all four Administrations—Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England—together. It is very important that that happens. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) referred to it. It is a critical factor so that we all hear the same story no matter what part of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland we live in.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We do all have to be singing from the same hymn sheet and giving out the same information.

We are taking a very proactive whole-of-Government approach to this. My Department—the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—has the responsibility for monitoring and analysing anti-vaccine narratives. My officials are working very closely with the vaccine taskforce, which comes out of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, while the Department of Health and Social Care is responsible for delivering effective communications around the vaccine. I meet my ministerial colleagues very frequently on this.

First and foremost, we are working with partners in the NHS, including GPs and nurses, to explain to patients the importance of vaccines. I am pleased that many organisations in the media and social media are acting very responsibly in providing accurate information. We are also working at pace to ensure that accurate information is available and accessible online, but we also have to address the swathes of inaccurate and misleading content alongside it. That is why we stood up the cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation unit in March as part of the Government response to covid-19.

My hon. Friend is making a very important point. I am sorry to have two bites at the cherry, but the point is that there is a knock-on impact from what people read online and then spread within their communities. Those who do not have access to online services are, in certain cases, hearing information first-hand from people they know, respect and are likely to believe. What direction might the Government be going in to try to counter that as a source of information?

As I say, we are working with a whole range of other Government Departments. The Department of Health is very much leading on the communication of this, and my Department is leading on the liaison with the platforms to ensure that tackling anti-vaccination messaging remains one of the key priorities of the cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation unit that we lead. We have been working with partners across Government to tackle this.

As the hon. Member for Ogmore said, we have seen some of the major social media companies update their terms of service and introduce new measures. Most recently, YouTube extended its policies to address false information. These are steps in the right direction. However, this year the Secretary of State for DCMS asked the major platforms to explore how they need to go further to stop the spread of this content. More needs to be done, more must be done, and we will continue to put pressure on these companies to take the necessary action against misinformation in all its guises.

It is really key that users are empowered with the knowledge and skills they need to keep themselves safe online as well. This includes how we recognise and report false and misleading content. We can all do our bit, whether it is fact-checking something before we share it or reporting something that is potentially harmful. Importantly, the Government are committed to publishing an online media literacy strategy that will set out our plans to ensure a co-ordinated and strategic approach to online media literacy, education and awareness for all users. That is due to be published next spring.

While covid has demonstrated the positive power of the internet, we have all seen that the increased amount of time spent online provides an opportunity for the spread of falsehood. The Government remain absolutely steadfast in our determination to tackle misinformation and disinformation in all its forms.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.