Social media companies can do more than delete accounts spreading false information – they could “badge” those that are reputable sources of information, said Health Minister, Simon Harris.
The minister has invited social media companies to a “summit” in the Department of Health to discuss what they can do to support public health.
“These platforms can be such a powerful tool for good or they can be vehicles for falsehoods and lies and they need to decide what side they want to be on,” he said.
Mr Harris was speaking at the launch of the Vaccine Alliance aimed at boosting the uptake of childhood vaccines and reducing vaccine hesitancy.
“Vaccination rates across the country are falling and diseases we had consigned to the history books are now making a comeback. We cannot afford to do nothing,” he said.
The minister said vaccine hesitancy is one of the greatest threats to public health globally according to the World Health Organisation and the European Commission.
Social media companies have to decide whether they want to be on the side of public health or want their platforms to be exploited for the spreading of lies and misinformation.
Mr Harris said social media sites have already shown a willingness to delete accounts but he believes they could do more than that: “I think they could use what is a very powerful platform to signpost people; they could badge certain accounts as reputable sources of information. The key here is to help all of us as parents and citizens to navigate in a world where there is a lot of information coming at us very fast.”
Mr Harris has received preliminary advice from the Attorney General, Seamus Woulfe, on the constitutionality of banning children from school until they have their vaccines.
The AG's advice is being reviewed by his department and he has asked the Health Research Board to look at other international experiences.
“I will take the AG's advice and the HRB's advice in tandem and make my views known at the end of the year,” said the minister, who said he has “an open mind” on mandatory vaccination.
Mr Harris called on politicians “of all political persuasions” to publicly support the childhood immunisation programme and to urge for greater uptake of vaccines.
He also urged them to be careful that they do not become “vehicles for disinformation” by asking irresponsible parliamentary questions about vaccines.
Mr Harris said they need to talk with parents, not at them, about boosting the uptake of childhood vaccines.
“My advice to parents would be simple and it would be advice I follow myself – go to reputable websites like immunisation.ie and HPV.ie, websites accredited by organisations like the WHO where you can get factual and evidence-based information. You would not let anyone other than a mechanic fix your car; don't get medical information from anyone who isn't medically qualified.”
A steering group to guide the work of the Vaccine Alliance has already met and includes a wide group of organisations including Barnardos, Unicef Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, Pavee Point and the Union of Students of Ireland.
More organisations will be added once the vision, values and aims of the alliance have been agreed.