Ministers have been urged to take tougher action against companies that fail to stamp out anti-vaccination content online, as it was revealed posters with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media are still churning out disinformation.
After Boris Johnson said that up to 90% of patients with Covid in intensive care across England had not had their third booster vaccine, Labour accused the government of being complacent on “a matter of life and death” and failing to stand up to social media giants.
Prominent anti-vaxxers on Instagram, Facebook and Telegram still have nearly 1.5 million followers, analysis compiled by Labour showed. The most popular were in the name of David Icke, a conspiracy theorist who wrongly believes that coronavirus is spread by 5G.
Some disinformation is also hosted on an alternative streaming site – BrandNewTube – a link to which is then posted on other, mainstream social media sites.
Videos have amassed up to 3.7m views, sparking fears that during a crucial stage in the booster programme some people are being put off getting jabbed. Around 10% of eligible people have not had their first vaccine, rising to 17% for a second dose. The booster rollout is still under way but 42% of people have not yet had a third vaccine.
The shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, said the continuing spread of vaccine misinformation online “is hitting vaccine uptake, and tackling this is critical to getting the unvaccinated vaccinated”.
Given the government has urged everyone eligible for a booster vaccine to take up the offer, she added: “One person put off the vaccine by dangerous anti-vaxxers is one too many.”
Powell said tech giants were “failing to wipe out vaccine lies” and that “government complacency on fake news means that they are failing to take action against online platforms that are facilitating the spread of disinformation”. She called it as “matter of life and death” and called on ministers to stand up to social media firms, “ignore their excuses, and introduce financial and criminal penalties for failures that lead to serious harm”.
It was also claimed that a government-commissioned body known as the counter disinformation policy forum was wound down in June 2021. It had brought together social media companies, academics and fact-checkers in response to fears about the harm posed by anti-vaxxers.
Powell asked for an update on the forum in a parliamentary written question, but in his answer DCMS minister Chris Philp said it had “concluded”. He added the department still “regularly meets with major social media platforms bilaterally” to discuss the issue.
A government spokesperson said ministers had “been providing people with advice and information about vaccines in one of the most extensive public health campaigns ever launched”.
They added that although a pilot had ended in the summer a counter-disinformation unit still exists and “continues to work closely with social media companies to identify and remove dangerous disinformation about vaccines”.
The spokesperson said: “Our tough new online safety laws will force these companies into action. Now that parliament has provided the necessary scrutiny of the legislation, we will introduce it as soon as possible.”
A senior government source said: “It’s a real shame that Labour are spreading their own misinformation in a desperate attempt to score political points in the fight against the virus. The counter disinformation unit continues to carry out its work and has not been stood down.”
Just before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the World Health Organization said in 2019 that vaccine hesitancy was one of the top 10 threats to global health and that it was important people were given “credible information” about inoculation to understand the benefits of getting jabbed.
Last October the Guardian revealed lies and conspiracy theories about Covid-19 had amassed millions of views on TikTok and were accessible to young children.