Facebook, Google and Twitter have been asked to explain their handling of vaccine misinformation online to MPs, amid fears it could hinder efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic.
Tech giants have faced increasing pressure to tackle false information this year and now the anti-vaccination movement is shaping up to be the next big threat.
The DCMS Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation wants to grill Facebook, Twitter and Google – which owns YouTube – next month, to find out about the action they are taking to remove harmful content and counter misinformation.
“It is very clear that there is a small window of opportunity to crack down now on misinformation put out there about vaccines that are intended to halt the spread of Covid-19,” said DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight.
“We want to talk to Google, Facebook and Twitter to find out how they are working to combat the presence of ‘anti-vax’ content on their platforms.
“This should also be a wake-up call to Government that its continued delay to introduce legislation to tackle online harms could have real and lasting consequences.”
It comes as Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca/Oxford University and Moderna announced promising progress in developing a vaccine in recent weeks.
But fact-checkers who help social networks deal with fake news posted on their platforms are already braced for an influx of Covid-19 vaccine conspiracy theories.
Full Fact’s editor Tom Phillips told the PA news agency that the British fact-checking charity expects anti-vaccination posts to be “ramped up”.
“I suspect that we will see many of the same claims being ramped up – the claims that this was part of a plot to force a vaccination on the population,” he said.
“You see misinformation about a mandatory vaccination when I don’t believe any such decision has been taken, certainly not in the UK.
“That information can ruin lives and, in a public health crisis, that’s clearer than ever before.”
Meanwhile, Labour has accused the Government of delaying the introduction of an online harms bill to protect internet users.
The party claims that the “anti-vaxx movement” had been allowed to grow to “dangerous levels”, and spread “misinformation that is putting lives at risk”.