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Anti-vaccination Extremism

Volume 689: debated on Monday 8 February 2021

What steps the Government are taking to tackle covid-19 anti-vaccination extremism posted online. (911925)

The United Kingdom’s world-beating vaccination programme is saving lives and livelihoods, and it is always vital that we arm ourselves with the facts and call out wrong information on vaccines. The counter-disinformation unit is responding to the misleading online content and working with social media platforms to ensure that all action is taken to remove harmful disinformation so that authoritative sources of information are promoted.

I have seen the brilliant work Labour councillors in Hounslow, Swindon and Blackburn have been doing to appeal to communities to take the vaccine. This work is being undermined by misinformation on social media, and is literally a matter of life and death. What plans do the Government have to bring forward legislation on, for example, financial and criminal penalties for social media companies that fail to act to stamp out this dangerous anti-vaccine content?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point at this very delicate time with the vaccine roll-out, and I would like to make two comments.

First, the Government are absolutely focused on zapping down the disinformation and misinformation that is circulating around the vaccine, because we cannot allow people—lives will be lost—basically to be duped into believing that this vaccine is not safe. I urge everyone—Labour councils, Conservative councils, and everyone in positions of authority—to get the message out to take the jab; it is safe, and it will protect individuals and their families.

Secondly, the hon. Lady asked about legislation and actions by the Government. A lot of work is taking place across Government, by the Home Office, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and other colleagues, around sanctions and penalties, and work has also taken place with the online harms Bill very much to target social media platforms and the way in which they operate.

Finally, it is worth concluding, as we see the vaccine roll-out taking place, that everyone should, when called, take the vaccine, and collectively—no matter what our backgrounds politically or in terms of gender or ethnicity—everyone should be out there praising the efforts on the vaccine and making sure that people take the jab.

The spread of disinformation and anti-vaccine content on social media is presenting a real danger to the NHS in its efforts to vaccinate against covid-19, and some communities are hesitant to accept the vaccine, with people risking their own health and, in some cases, their own lives. In an agreement with the social media giants it was revealed that their only commitment was not to profit from or promote flagged anti-vax content, but there was no commitment to close down these groups, so is it not time that the Government got tougher to stop the anti-vax message getting through?

I very much refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments that I have just made: a lot of work is taking place with social media platforms. False information, disinformation and manipulated information are intended to deceive and mislead people, and when it comes to the vaccine that is going to risk lives. The Government are very clear about that, which is why action is taking place across all Government Departments, as I have outlined.

It is worth nothing that Ofcom’s latest research shows that the NHS remains the most trusted source of information on covid-19, and therefore it is right that we continue absolutely to put pressure on social media platforms when disinformation materialises, but also make sure that we maximise the right kind of information going out about the vaccine through respected channels of communication.