Social media companies that fail to act to “stamp out dangerous anti-vaccine content” should be subject to financial and criminal penalties, Labour has demanded.
As hopes rise that a vaccine against coronavirus could be ready within weeks, analysis by Labour has revealed that dedicated online groups with hundreds of thousands of members are still churning out disinformation – despite the new measures announced by the government and social media companies last week to tackle the issue.
In a letter to Oliver Dowden, the digital, culture and media secretary, Labour warns that the spread of disinformation presents a “real and present danger” to vaccination efforts and calls on the government to bring forward legislation against online harms. Jo Stevens and Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow secretaries for culture and for health,
say in the letter that if the government works with Labour on the issue, it will provide votes to pass legislation.
The government announced an agreement with social media giants last week. But the details of the deal revealed that the only commitment was not to profit from or promote flagged anti-vax content. This raised questions as to why these groups weren’t simply being closed down.
Labour says its analysis shows:
• Anti-vaccine social media groups unmasked by the Center for Countering Digital Hate months ago still remain open and active in spreading misinformation.
• Numerous openly anti-vaccination groups with nearly 100,000 Facebook users can be found within seconds of logging on to the platform in the UK.
• Videos featuring prominent anti-vaxxers on YouTube are still featuring advertising generating income for the platform.
• Groups engaged with tackling extremists warn that anti-vaccination conspiracy theories provide a recruiting ground for the far right.
“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.”
Other groups joined the call for action. Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said: “Despite big tech’s promises, Google is still funding anti-vax misinformation websites by placing advertisements on them, while Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube give well-known anti-vaxxers a platform to spread dangerous conspiracy theories and lies to millions of users.
“Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, big tech has made bold claims of intent, but failed to follow through with effective action. It is vital that there are sanctions when social media companies fail to fulfil their duty of care to users and society at large. The government must stop falling for big tech’s excuses, and introduce financial and criminal penalties for failures that lead to serious harm.
“We have all done our bit to contain coronavirus. It’s beyond time for social media companies and regulators to do their bit too.”
But Adam Hadley, founder and director of the Online Harms Foundation, said that while it may be superficially appealing to fine social media platforms for allowing users to post content online, “it creates more problems than it solves.”
“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, ” said Hadley, whose NGO works in partnership with some of the major platforms, governments and others to tackle online harms.
“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,” he added.
• This article was amended on 17 November 2020 to add detail about the Online Harms Foundation, whose partners include Facebook, Google and Twitter, tech companies and government ministries, among others.