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Social media contributing to tripling of measles cases, NHS England chief says

Measles is on the rise, and the NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens suspects that social media’s unique ability to spread misinformation is partially to blame.

Speaking at a health summit last week, Stevens warned that anti-vaxxers’ effective use of YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp was triggering a wave of Measles cases in England. As recently as 2016, the WHO reported that the disease had hit “elimination” status on our shores, meaning that it was uncommon enough for the disease not to spread around the country.

But now it’s back, and cases are increasing at an alarming rate. “Last year, for example, we saw more than triple the number of measles cases across England than we had seen the year before despite the fact that clearly, vaccination works,” Stevens said.

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As CNN reports, Stevens referred to the “fake news movement” and its part of the blame, highlighting one case where a parent at his daughter’s school used WhatsApp to spread alarm about children’s immune systems being “loaded up” with vaccines.

“We are not being helped on this front by the fact that although nine in ten parents support vaccination, half of them say they have seen fake messages about vaccination on social media,” Stevens said.

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YouTube’s chief weapon in the fight against fake news on its platform is to strip advertising from videos that spread dangerous content such as anti-vaxxers myths. It has also experimented with putting Wikipedia links to videos that promote conspiracy theories, which is a pretty limited solution for all kinds of reasons.

The flipside of this – and an argument that Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, used in its response to CNN – is that censorship is a slippery slope. “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,” the company wrote.

“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.”

Both Facebook and YouTube may have to become more heavy handed in time. A recent Royal Society for Public Health study concluded that social media is a “breeding ground for misleading information and negative messaging around vaccination.”

What should social media companies do to combat the spread of fake news? Let us know what you think on Twitter: @TrustedReviews.

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