As critical Phase 3 trials are underway, communities across the UK – and indeed around the world – have had a silver lining that a long-term solution to this crisis may be within reach. However, we must not get ahead of ourselves. The Oxford / AstraZeneca study is just one of some 140 studies conducted around the world, as leading scientists seek to find what may be as close to the end of this pandemic as the one we are are going to get.
You would be forgiven for thinking that formulating a clinically safe and effective vaccine would be the last hurdle we will face in what will inevitably still be an uphill battle against Covid-19. A recent poll by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that 31% of the British public would be reluctant to get a vaccine against the coronavirus if it became available. This not only poses a risk to these people – it risks undermining the effectiveness of potentially the most powerful tool in our arsenal.
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Simply put, the more people who choose to have a safe vaccine, the closer we will come to freeing our collective health and economy from the ransom situation we have found ourselves in. theories risk becoming their own online pandemic if firm action is not taken. It’s positive to see Boris Johnson branding anti-vax conspiratorial propagators ‘crazy’ this week, but now he needs to come up with a clear strategy on how he is going to fight this growing movement – and quickly.
The CCDH’s recent study of online disinformation showed that so-called anti-vax social media accounts now have 58 million subscribers and that number is growing rapidly. The 147 largest accounts have racked up 7.8 million new subscribers since 2019, a staggering 19% increase.
Facebook is overwhelmingly the main host for this potentially dangerous information, but the platform is by no means the only one. On YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and various other popular social media sites, this disinformation virus now poses a real threat to our ability to control the real and deadly coronavirus.
Last week, I raised this matter directly with Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who assured me he would meet with Nick Clegg, now vice president of Facebook, to discuss this matter. I am glad the UK government seems to be relatively proactive on this, but ministers should not underestimate the virility of this trend.
The anti-vax movement is nothing new – in fact, it has been around since the days of smallpox. But what we must not lose sight of in 2020 are the exponential levels of oxygen that the internet, and especially social media platforms, are giving to such damaging lies.
As the chair of the all-party group of MPs interested in social media, I have closely followed the activities of various platforms since the start of this pandemic. It must be said that many sites have done a really positive job of trying to promote reliable news sources at a time when the need to fight disinformation could hardly be more crucial.
What the social media giants consistently fail is to proactively curb the increasing levels of misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines that is spreading across their platforms. Anti-vax information may not be displayed on billboards across the country, but growing evidence suggests that it is starting to reach and influence as many people as if they were. We have already seen this digital pandemic spread to our streets. The frankly frightening protests we saw in Hyde Park this weekend might be just the start if we don’t realize this.
Time and time again, social media giants have proven that they won’t take firm action without being forced to. The UK government continues to drag its heels on the long-awaited online damage bill, which has the potential to shield social media users from the many dangers people now face online.
Before that, ministers must take all the firm and decisive action necessary to prevent the anti-vax virus from spreading further through internet cables and into homes across our country. If they fail to do so, the vaccine we all crave for may not prove to be the solution our world desperately needs.
Chris Elmore is Labor MP for Ogmore and chairman of the All Party parliamentary group on social media.