GPs call for clampdown on anti-vaccination misinformation

‘People have died as a result of misinformation. But dead patients don’t talk.’

Ireland’s new online safety tsar should target anti-vaccination activists spreading misinformation on social media, the president of the National Association of General Practitioners has said.

Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail said the proposed online safety commissioner should “absolutely” pursue anti-vaccination campaigns, saying that they were directly responsible for an upsurge in measles in north county Dublin.

“We know the single biggest driving force for the reduction in vaccination uptake is misinformation on social media,” he said. “That is having an impact, it’s concerning people unnecessarily and putting people off getting vaccines, and we’re seeing that at the moment.

“There’s an outbreak of measles in north county Dublin, and that is only because the uptake of the MMR vaccine is much lower than it should be, and that is as a result of misinformation on social media,” he said.


Minister for Communications Richard Bruton this week announced plans for an Online Safety Act which will force internet and social media companies to regulate the content they facilitate. As part of the Act, he intends to appoint an online safety commissioner who would have the authority to order internet companies to remove content, as well as issuing fines and pursuing criminal prosecutions against firms which fail to comply with the office's directions.

“Regulating social media is incredibly complex, but it’s vital that there is at least some attempt to do that,” Dr Ó Tuathail said. He was speaking at the launch of a report by drug manufacturer MSD into levels of trust in online healthcare information among Irish people.

The report found 15 per cent of Irish people consider health websites to be trustworthy sources of information, while five per cent consider discussion boards trustworthy. Just 12 per cent thought newspapers were a trustworthy source of information, while for social media, the figure was four per cent.

Fine Gael TD Hildegarde Naughton, who chairs the Oireachtas communications committee, said that she intended to ask social media companies to come before the committee to answer questions about the spread of anti-vaccination misinformation on their platforms.

“That’s something we’re going to be calling in all the social media platforms, in relation to how we regulate that,” she said.

Case study

Eileen O’Sullivan was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in 2013 and was shocked by the misinformation she found online. She says tighter regulation of social media could be key to improving outcomes.

“Where the real gap is is in the social media space,” she says. Twitter in particular, Ms O’Sullivan argues, is home to huge amounts of bogus material.

“You don’t have a bank of professionals there to engage and counteract it and provide evidence based information. The ones who do… they get a lot of abuse and legal litigation. It’s tough,” she says.

When she was diagnosed and receiving treatment, she sought more information online about the latest research on her condition. What she found was quite different. "The non-credible, non professional, non-reputable information came top in Google, " she says. She was told that her disease was caused by negative vibes and root canals, or that her cancer was a fungus.

“I have no doubt that people have died as a result of misinformation,” she says. “But dead patients don’t talk.”

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times