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Coronavirus vaccine: Labour calls for emergency censorship laws for anti-vax content

The Independent logo The Independent 14/11/2020 Jon Stone
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The government should bring forward emergency legislation to “stamp out” dangerous anti-vax misinformation ahead of the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine, Labour has said.

The shadow culture secretary, Jo Stevens, and the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, have written to the government warning that “our historic strength in vaccine uptake must not be taken for granted” as the prospect of a treatment for the virus looms.

Keir Starmer’s shadow ministers are calling for financial and criminal penalties for social media companies that fail to censor posts promoting anti-vaccination content, which they note is rampant on those platforms.

The opposition ministers say anti-vaccination groups with almost 100,000 users can be found within seconds of logging on to Facebook.

An analysis by a think tank, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, suggests that misinformation and disinformation about vaccines is also spreading on newer forms of social media, such as TikTok, where the hashtag #vaccinesaredangerous has almost 800,000 views.

In addition, dozens of anti-vaccination petitions have been posted on the government’s website, some with almost 200,000 signatures.

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: Protestors hold signs during the anti-lockdown protest on November 14, 2020 in Bristol, England. Police had warned protesters to cancel the march or face possible fines. Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, there have been recurring, if modest, protests across England against lockdown restrictions and other rules meant to curb the spread of the virus. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images) © 2020 Matthew Horwood BRISTOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 14: Protestors hold signs during the anti-lockdown protest on November 14, 2020 in Bristol, England. Police had warned protesters to cancel the march or face possible fines. Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, there have been recurring, if modest, protests across England against lockdown restrictions and other rules meant to curb the spread of the virus. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

“The government has a pitiful track record on taking action against online platforms that are facilitating the spread of disinformation,” said Ms Stevens.

“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.”

In the joint letter, the two shadow secretaries of state said that “groups flagged months ago to social media companies remain active”, despite commitments by the government and industry.

Gallery: Covid-19 vaccines in Phase 3 trials (Photo Services)


Last week, social media giants agreed a package of measures with ministers to tackle anti-vaccine misinformation. Facebook, Twitter and Google promised to “step up work with public health bodies to promote factual and reliable messages” and committed to “swifter responses to flagged content”.

The digital secretary, Oliver Dowden, said that “Covid disinformation is dangerous and could cost lives”, and that there was "much more that can be done" to counter it.

However, the government has stopped short of saying such misinformation should necessarily be removed, instead raising the prospect that it could instead be de-monetised, given that “making money from this dangerous content would be wrong”.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 file photo, senior Clinical Research Nurse Ajithkumar Sukumaran prepares the COVID 19 vaccine to administer to a volunteer, at a clinic in London. The British government on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020 says it may take part in a study that tries to deliberately infect volunteers who have been given an experimental vaccine against the coronavirus in an effort to more quickly determine if the vaccine works. The approach, called a challenge study, is risky but proponents think it may produce results faster than typical studies, which wait to see if volunteers who have been given an experimental treatment or a dummy version get sick.  (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File) © ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 file photo, senior Clinical Research Nurse Ajithkumar Sukumaran prepares the COVID 19 vaccine to administer to a volunteer, at a clinic in London. The British government on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020 says it may take part in a study that tries to deliberately infect volunteers who have been given an experimental vaccine against the coronavirus in an effort to more quickly determine if the vaccine works. The approach, called a challenge study, is risky but proponents think it may produce results faster than typical studies, which wait to see if volunteers who have been given an experimental treatment or a dummy version get sick. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)


Imran Ahmed, a former Labour adviser who runs the Centre 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.”

Stay alert to stop coronavirus spreading - here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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