Social media influencers and celebrities with millions of followers are boosting anti-vaccination messages worldwide, as more people say that they will not take a coronavirus vaccine.
Politicians and experts have given warning that the rapid spread of misinformation about a Covid-19 vaccine could mean that it cannot be rolled out effectively.
Damian Collins, a former chairman of the Commons committee on digital, media, culture and sport, said that the findings required urgent legislation.
“I think it’s utterly irresponsible and, in some cases deliberately malicious, to share false or misleading health stories on social media,” he said. “We now face an unthinkable crisis where 31 per cent of Britons could refuse to be vaccinated once a Covid-19 vaccine is found. This is pure and simple negligence from the platforms and requires urgent ‘online harms’ legislation.”
This week the singer Madonna and the Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton were forced to take down Instagram posts that contained inaccurate claims about a coronavirus vaccine. Behind their posts is a network of fake information with its own celebrities, some of whom have hundreds of thousands of followers.
The video removed by Hamilton was a clip of Bill Gates talking about the safety and efficacy of a Covid-19 vaccine, captioned to imply that he was lying. It originated from the influencer Andrew Bachelor, who has nearly 20 million followers. The influencer Melvin Gregg, who has nearly three million followers, commented: “I’m not buying it”, while another claimed that Gates was trying to “kill us all”.
Some anti-vaccination campaigners have built up huge followings with seemingly little action taken. Ashley Everly is a self-proclaimed toxicologist with nearly 42,000 fans on Instagram. As well as claiming that a vaccine could increase the chance of developing the virus, she is also an anti-mask advocate. Jodie Meschuk, with nearly 30,000 followers, says that vaccines cause autoimmune disease and autism, while Taylor Winterstein tells her 58,000 fans that vaccines are not safety-tested.
Celebrities and influencers are a megaphone for false claims, warned Professor Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccination Confidence project at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).
“Often people will repost or share material without realising the multiplier effect it can have,” she said. “In the case of celebrities, some have really jumped on to this issue. It’s more stage time.”
At the start of the pandemic polling by LSHTM found that 5 per cent of people would turn down a vaccine but this has tripled to 15 per cent.
Professor Larson said that the authorities must answer questions before anti-vaxxers capitalised on uncertainty. “That’s when things get dangerous: when people who are open start to wonder and then they start looking online.
“In the area of the Covid vaccine, we need to get information into these networks about how a vaccine can be made so fast,” she added. “We have more funding mechanisms [and] new technology which allows it to be safely made faster. We’re not taking old systems and short-changing them, but that message isn’t out there.”
Jo Stevens, the shadow digital secretary, said: “The rapid spread of false information could literally be a question of life and death. The fact that social-media platforms facilitate the spread of this dangerous content shows why we desperately need legislation.”
John Nicolson, an SNP MP who sits on the Commons online harms sub-committee, said that social media groups did not take the UK government seriously. “For far too long the government has talked about how it will get tougher eventually. I think [social media firms] think it’s all hot air. It is high time that we showed it’s not.”
Facebook said: “We are continuously working to stop harmful misinformation from spreading on our platforms and we removed seven million pieces of Covid-19-related misinformation between April and June. We’ve also been focused on amplifying credible information, and have connected over two billion people to resources from health authorities through our Covid-19 information centre and pop-ups on Facebook and Instagram, with 600 million people clicking through to learn more.”