By Jane Kirby, Press Association Health Editor
Social media is helping spread “misleading and dangerous information” to the public about vaccines, a new report has suggested.
The study, from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), said social media was a “breeding ground for misleading information and negative messaging around vaccination”.
Experts called for more to be done to challenge untruths about possible side-effects of vaccines and said social media giants should clampdown on “fake news”.
“The online environment, and social media in particular, has become increasingly influential in the 21st century,” the study said.
“The influence of social media over the public’s view on vaccinations is likely to increase, particularly as younger generations become parents.
“We have found that the impact of social media is likely to be negative, it is a breeding ground for misleading information and negative messaging around vaccination.”
The RSPH said it would look at how collaborations could be made with social media giants, including Facebook and Twitter, to help signpost whether health information was from reputable sources.
“Social media platforms and message boards could also clampdown on ‘fake news’ spread on their sites by prioritising health information from reputable sources,” it said.
“Currently, on Facebook for example, suggested groups or pages are ordered by popularity rather than credibility of the information.
“Google already prioritises organisations such as the NHS or the British Medical Association, and this should be enforced across social media platforms.”
The report included a survey of 2,000 people, of whom 82% agreed that social media platforms should take steps to limit ‘fake news’ regarding vaccinations.
Among parents in the survey, two out of five with children under the age of 18 said they were “often or sometimes” exposed to negative messages about vaccinations on social media.
The report said: “Health misinformation on social media is concerning, spreading misleading and dangerous information about vaccination to the public.
“Misinformation can have dangerous consequences, as seen with the MMR controversy, and, at present, it seems that the powerful tool of social media is being utilised more prominently by those looking to spread negative information and ‘fake news’ about vaccinations.”
The report found that among all age groups, a fear of side-effects was the number one reason why people failed to vaccinate themselves or their children.
But among all parents, 91% agreed that vaccines were important for their children’s health.
The report also said that vaccinations should be offered in a more diverse range of locations, including at high street pop-ups, gyms and workplaces.
Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the RSPH, said: “Vaccinations are one of the most powerful tools we have for protecting and improving the public’s health, saving millions of lives every year across the globe.”
She said the UK had a “world-leading vaccination programme”, but added: “We should never be complacent.
“History has taught us that fear and misinformation about vaccines can cause substantial damage to even the strongest vaccination programmes.
“With the rise of social media, we must guard against the spread of ‘fake news’ about vaccinations.
“We have found worrying levels of exposure to negative messages about vaccinations on social media, and the spread of misinformation – if it impacts uptake of vaccines – could severely damage the public’s health.”
Helen Donovan, professional lead for public health at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Challenging misinformation is vital to reverse the decline in vaccination uptake and ensure people recognise the protection it offers.
“In 2017 Britain was declared free of endemic measles, with just 259 lab confirmed cases.
“But last year saw 913 confirmed cases of this potentially fatal yet entirely preventable disease, a three-fold increase. This has been exacerbated by myths propagated largely online.”
A Facebook spokesman said: “We don’t want misleading content on Facebook and have made significant investments in recent years to stop misinformation from spreading and to promote high-quality journalism and news literacy.
“That said, we always try to strike a balance between allowing free speech and keeping people safe, which is why we don’t prevent people from saying something that is factually incorrect, particularly if they aren’t doing so intentionally.
“However we do take steps to ensure this kind of content is demoted in people’s News Feeds to give it less chance of being seen and spread and, ultimately, to discourage those posting it.”