Intended for healthcare professionals


Vaccination: “fake news” on social media may be harming UK uptake, report warns

BMJ 2019; 364 doi: (Published 23 January 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;364:l365
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

The spread of misinformation and “fake news” on social media may be fuelling public concern about potential side effects of vaccination and could restrict uptake, the Royal Society for Public Health has warned.1

Although the UK maintains “world leading” levels of vaccine coverage, the extent to which social media propagates misinformation about vaccinations is a concern, it said.

The society conducted a literature review of relevant articles and three public surveys carried out in May 2018.1 These included a poll of 2622 UK parents, which found that two in five (41%; 1075) had been exposed to negative messages about vaccines on social media. This increased to half (50%; 1311) among parents of children under 5.

A separate survey of 2000 UK adults found that a fear of side effects was the most common reason for choosing not to vaccinate, across a range of vaccines including MMR, HPV, and flu.

Reputable sources

The report urged social media providers and the wider press to step up efforts to limit “fake news” about vaccinations by prioritising health information from reputable sources. It noted that Facebook, for example, currently recommends groups or pages by their popularity rather than the credibility of their information.

The NHS England Information Standard—a certification scheme for organisations that produce health and social care information for the public in England—should be applied to social media platforms to ensure that information is from reputable sources, the report argued.

Despite the concerns general attitudes to vaccines were largely positive, as 91% of parents (2386) agreed that vaccines were important for their children’s health. And the report noted that trust in healthcare professionals remained high, as doctors and nurses were consistently valued highly as a source of information about vaccines.2

But it also found a fairly low understanding of the key concepts of vaccination, as over a quarter of UK adults surveyed (28%; 560) incorrectly believed that you can have too many vaccinations.

Lessons from history

Healthcare professionals and the public both identified the timing, availability, and location of appointments as potential barriers to vaccination. To remedy this the report suggests that vaccinations should be offered in a more diverse range of locations, including gyms and workplaces.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said that lessons from history—including the damaging impact of Andrew Wakefield’s now discredited paper on measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR)—showed why action was necessary.

She said, “In the UK, we are fortunate to have a fantastic, world leading vaccination programme, with excellent levels of coverage. However, 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.”

The report was sponsored by the drug company MSD. The society said that MSD did not have editorial input and was not responsible for the content or any opinions expressed in the report.