Belfast Telegraph

Harris presses social media firms over vaccine misinformation

The health minister said Facebook, Twitter and Google acknowledged they have a responsibility to users.

(David Cheskin/PA)
(David Cheskin/PA)

By Aoife Moore and Cate McCurry, PA

The Minister for Health has met social media companies to discuss vaccine misinformation.

Simon Harris sat down with Facebook, Twitter and Google on Monday to discuss the measures they are taking to combat anti-vaccination misinformation on their platforms.

Vaccine hesitancy has been identified by the World Health Organisation as one of the 10 leading threats to global health this year.

Mr Harris earlier this year wrote to Attorney General Seamus Woulfe seeking advice about the possibility of introducing mandatory vaccine programmes in schools and creches.

Misinformation has steadily grown among Irish social media users in the last few years, and many believe vaccines are linked to autism and other conditions in children.

The widely discredited theory is often promoted on parenting and community groups on social media.

“The progress we have made in reducing, and in some cases eradicating, vaccine-preventable diseases will be in vain if we allow our immunisation programmes to be undermined by misinformation and disinformation about the benefits and safety of vaccines, particularly on social media,” Mr Harris said after the meeting.

“Social media is an incredibly powerful tool that can also be harnessed to direct people to sources of factual information about vaccination, so they can make informed decisions.

“It is in this context that I met with the social media companies today.”

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Simon Harris (Brian Lawless/PA)

He commended the social media companies for being proactive and putting in place measures to tackle the issue and said he received commitments from them to work with the Department of Health to make further progress.

Mr Harris said the companies acknowledged they have a responsibility to users in the area of public health.

“While some of them have taken measures to combat vaccine misinformation, they acknowledged there was much more work to be done and agreed to liaise with the department regarding the work of the Vaccine Alliance and with the HSE to progress further initiatives,” he said.

“We must do everything we can to ensure people get accurate and reputable information on public health.”

Figures from Unicef showed the number of measles cases in Ireland increased by more than 200% in a year.

It is part of a worldwide trend of rising cases being attributed to scaremongering and misinformation.

In Ireland vaccines are recommended by health officials but are not mandatory.

A spokeswoman for Facebook said: “We would like to thank the minister for the opportunity to discuss the important issue of vaccine misinformation.

“We look forward to working closely with the Department of Health to make continued progress in this area and building on the resources Facebook has already put in place.”

A spokeswoman for Twitter said: “As a company, our main priority is to protect the health of the public conversation – this includes surfacing credible public health information.

“In October we partnered with the HSE to launch a tool on our service that directs people searching for vaccine information to a dedicated HSE web page.

“To this end, we met with Minister Harris in Dublin today to continue our dialogue on combating vaccine misinformation online and to identify new areas for partnership and collaboration.”

A spokeswoman for Google said: “Google welcomes the opportunity to engage with the Minister and share our progress on helping people find helpful and authoritative information on health topics.”

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