Social media companies ‘must do more’ on vaccine misinformation – Harris

Minister met Facebook, Twitter, and Google to discuss measures to combat the problem

Vaccine hesitancy has been identified by the World Health Organisation as one of the 10 leading threats to global health in 2019. Photograph: iStock

Vaccine hesitancy has been identified by the World Health Organisation as one of the 10 leading threats to global health in 2019. Photograph: iStock

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris said social media companies have “much more work” to do 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 in 2019.

Mr Harris met Facebook, Twitter, and Google on Monday to discuss measures they are taking to combat the issue on their platforms.

“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,” said Mr Harris.

“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.”

Mr Harris said he commended the companies for being proactive and putting in place measures to tackle the issue. He also said he welcomed their commitment to work with the Department of Health to make further progress.

'More work'

However, Mr Harris added that the companies have “much more work” to do in the area.

“The companies themselves acknowledged they have a responsibility to their users in the area of public health,” he said.

“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.

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

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

In a statement, Twitter said it was working to identify “new areas for partnership and collaboration” with the Government on the subject.

“As a company, our main priority is to protect the health of the public conversation - this includes surfacing credible public health information,” it said.

“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.”

The new tool referenced by Twitter gives prominence to credible public health information about vaccines to people in Ireland who search the topic on the platform.

People searching for vaccine-related facts via the social media giant are now directed towards a dedicated HSE webpage, in a change designed to curb the spread of misinformation online.

Under the new system, when someone in Ireland searches for certain keywords associated with vaccinations on Twitter, they will get a visual prompt at the top of their search results directing them to the HSE’s dedicated webpage.

The tool mirrors similar changes made in the US earlier this year, where people seeking information about vaccines are directed towards the US Department of Health & Human Services and its vaccine-specific website.