POLITICS

UK Government To Call For Social Media Companies To Combat Vaccine Misinformation

The pressure from Prime Minister Boris Johnson follows U.S. lawmakers calling for accountability from tech giants over the spread of anti-vaccine propaganda.

Britain’s government is planning to call for a social media summit so that platforms can discuss how to combat misinformation and propaganda about vaccinations after the United Kingdom experienced a spike in measles cases this year.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday that he’s concerned about the fact that more than 230 cases of measles were reported during the first quarter of 2019 in the U.K., which had been classified as “measles-free” by the World Health Organization. 

Part of Johnson’s plan includes calling for a gathering of social media companies, saying authorities must address misinformation circulating online about the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine.  

“Don’t be complacent,” he said in a video on Twitter encouraging parents to vaccinate their children. “Don’t be suckered by the media mumbo jumbo about this MMR. We need to keep people safe.”

The pressure from the British government comes as lawmakers in the U.S. are also calling for social media companies to take responsibility for vaccine misinformation spreading on their platforms. The number of measles cases in the U.S. in 2019 has surpassed 1,000, which federal health officials said is the worst outbreak of the disease in 25 years.

In February, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing concern that Instagram and Facebook were “surfacing and recommending messages that discourage parents from vaccinating their children.” Schiff cited a Guardian report that suggested searches on Facebook and YouTube often led users to pages that displayed vaccine misinformation.

A month later, Facebook said it would work to tackle vaccine misinformation by lowering the ranking of groups and pages that spread such lies on people’s news feed. The platform also said it would reject ads that include anti-vaccine information and will not display or recommend vaccine misinformation on search and hashtag pages on Instagram, one of its properties.

That decision came after Pinterest said it would block results for searches related to vaccines. YouTube also said it would demonetize anti-vax videos after a February report from BuzzFeed.

But some vaccine misinformation still manages to spread online. Technically, companies like Facebook and Twitter don’t have specific policies against general misinformation, so anti-vaccine propaganda on personal accounts would not violate any rules. But Twitter has said that users in the U.S. and the U.K. who search for vaccine information will first get a government information site from their respective countries.

There were more reports of measles cases worldwide in the first half of 2019 than in any year since 2006, “with outbreaks straining health care systems and leading to serious illness, disability and deaths,” according to recent data from WHO. The organization said one of the reasons for people not being vaccinated included misinformation.

Measles is “almost entirely preventable” with two doses of the vaccine, according to WHO. A country needs 95% of its population to receive both vaccination doses to ensure that measles doesn’t spread.

Johnson’s call for a summit of social media companies is not the first time the British government has clashed with online platforms. In February, British lawmakers released a report accusing Facebook of “intentionally and knowingly” violating the U.K.’s data privacy and competition laws. That report, which studied social media’s role in peddling misinformation and interfering in elections, called on lawmakers to create regulations to hold tech giants accountable for maliciously spreading misinformation on their platforms.

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