If firm action is not taken, ill-informed anti-vaccination theories risk becoming an online pandemic of their own - GulfToday

If firm action is not taken, ill-informed anti-vaccination theories risk becoming an online pandemic of their own


Picture shown is for illustrative purposes only.

Chris Elmore, The Independent

The country took a cautious sigh of relief this week as news broke that the coronavirus vaccine being developed by Oxford academics triggers an immune response.

As critical phase 3 trials get underway, communities across the UK – and indeed around the world – have been given a glimmer of hope that a long-term solution to this crisis could be within reach. We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves, though. The Oxford/AstraZeneca study is just one of around 140 that are being conducted globally, as world-leading scientists seek to find what could be as close to a “silver bullet” end to this pandemic as we are going to get.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that formulating a clinically safe and effective vaccine would be the final hurdle we face in what will inevitably still be an arduous struggle against COVID-19. Recent polling from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) lays bare that 31 per cent of the British public would be hesitant to have a coronavirus vaccine if one becomes available. This doesn’t merely present a risk for those individuals – it risks undermining the effectiveness of potentially the most powerful tool in our armoury.

Put simply, the more people who opt to have a safe vaccine, the closer we’ll get to releasing our collective health and our economy from the ransom situation we have been in. Disturbingly, it’s now clear that ill-informed anti-vaccination conspiracy theories risk becoming an online pandemic of their own if firm action is not taken. It’s positive to see that Boris Johnson called out the propagators of anti-vax conspiracies as “nuts” this week but he must now bring forward a clear strategy as to how he’s going to combat this growing movement – and fast.

The CCDH’s recent study into misinformation online showed that so-called anti-vax social media accounts now have 58 million followers and this number is growing rapidly. The 147 largest accounts have amassed 7.8 million new followers since 2019, representing a staggering increase of 19 per cent.

Facebook is overwhelmingly the leading host of such potentially dangerous information, but the platform is by no means alone. Across YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and various other popular social media sites, this virus of misinformation now presents a real threat to our ability to control the real, and deadly, coronavirus.

Last week, I raised this directly with the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who assured me that he would be meeting with Nick Clegg, now a vice president of Facebook, to discuss this issue. I’m pleased the UK government appears to be being relatively proactive about this, but ministers must not underestimate the virility of this trend.

The anti-vax movement is nothing new – in fact, it’s been around since the days of smallpox. But what we mustn’t lose sight of in 2020 though is the exponential levels of oxygen the internet, and particularly social media platforms, give to such damaging falsehoods.

What the social media giants are systematically failing to do though is proactively take down the burgeoning levels of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines being spread on their platforms. Anti-vax information may not be being put on billboards around the country, but growing evidence suggests it’s starting to reach and influence as many people as if it were. We’ve already seen this digital pandemic spilling out onto our streets. The frankly scary protests we saw in Hyde Park over the weekend could be just the start if we do not get on top of this.

Time after time, the social media giants have proven that they will not take firm action without being forced to. The UK Government is continuing to drag its heels over the long-awaited Online Harms Bill that has the potential to protect social media users from the many dangers people now face online.

In advance of this, ministers must take whatever firm and decisive action is necessary to halt the anti-vax virus from further spreading through internet cables and into households across our country. If they fail to do so, the vaccine we are all praying for with bated breath may not prove to be the solution our world so desperately needs it to be.

Related articles

Other Articles