People are dying directly because of the spreading of misinformation about MMR vaccinations on social media, a Government minister has claimed.
Speaking at a fringe event on MPs, the public and social media at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Digital Minister Matt Warman said: “There is obviously quite a lot that we should be doing with what you might call a big stick around anti-vaccination content for instance, because we can say very clearly there is no public good in falling rates of MMR vaccinations.
“There is no public good in a kind of, in what is essentially more people dying as a direct result of misinformation on social media.
It is obvious that there is public consent for something being doneMatt Warman
“But there is also a huge free speech component around that, and I think we need to be very clear that the majority of this has to be the nudging of public behaviour, rather than ‘Government has big stick and is seeking to regulate free speech’, because that cannot be the kind of values that we would seek to defend.”
Mr Warman continued: “It is obvious that there is public consent for something being done. We want fewer teenage girls to be exposed to content around eating disorders online, we want fewer parents to be exposed to things around anti-vaccination stuff.
“But expressing a view or having a conversation around what is a healthy body image, what is the value of this research, very clearly there is a massive free speech component in that, and I don’t think we have to be as black and white as choosing between free speech and vaccination.
“We have to acknowledge it is much more sophisticated than that, the work Damian’s committee has been doing clearly acknowledges all of those nuances, but it also rightly says we have to come down on a certain side of this argument.
“And that side has to balance free speech and those liberal values we would all seek to defend with the fact that we have allowed social media in particular to become an unregulated space that longer has the public consent that it needs to operate.”
Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Damian Collins moved on to discuss the issue of racist and homophobic language targeted at individuals online.
Mr Collins said people should be “concerned” about hurtful language on social media.
When questioned on Manchester United footballer Paul Pogba receiving racist abuse online after missing a penalty, Mr Collins said: “Why should we accept in public life that anyone in the public eye should get battered on social media with no redress, and that we should just shrug our shoulders and say that’s it, it’s freedom of expression and the world we live in.
“This ugliness that wasn’t there before has been given a new form of expression and I think we should be concerned about that.”
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Nicky Morgan added that she personally no longer views comments directed at her social media pages due to the large amounts of hateful messages she has received.
Ms Morgan said: “The trouble with a lot of the noise on my notifications page is that it drowns out the people who absolutely have a right to contact me for my help and sometimes to the point where actually, and certainly on Twitter, I don’t look now at my notifications or at the messages, because actually there’s such a level of abuse, and such a media push back, that actually I leave it either to others or I wait until something has died down and then I’ll have a look further on.”
She added: “It’s worth remembering, and I think I said this at the beginning, that the public is not represented by Twitter.
“It is a small part of the public, and the vast majority, and I hope the campaigning people on this platform would agree, that actually the vast majority of people are polite, willing to engage – even if they disagree with you they will do so in a way whereby it’s a positive experience on a doorstep, or standing in Watford market or whatever it is, rather than a negative one.
“And the honest truth in terms of tackling ugliness is that those of us in public life have a duty to think very hard obviously about what we say online but offline as well, and there are things that people say about each other that actually would be better not said.
“And I think we could all do sometimes with just standing back.”