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EXCL Public would back crackdown on social media amid wave of Covid-19 ‘disinformation’, new poll reveals

The findings come amid concern about the spread of coronavirus-related conspiracy theories.

4 min read

A majority of Brits would back tough new curbs on social media giants amid a surge of “misleading” information on the coronavirus pandemic, new polling suggests.

A fresh study for the Open Knowledge Foundation found that 55% of the public believe ministers “should impose compulsory action on social media sites to prevent the spread of disinformation”.

And a majority (51%) also revealed that they had been exposed to false or inaccurate claims about Covid-19 online, as countries around the world battle the pandemic.

Downing Street last month hit out at a "crazed conspiracy theory" being shared online that linked the coronavirus with the development of 5G mobile technology, while Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has already held talks with social media firms telling them to do more to tackle false claims.

The new poll - shared with PoliticsHome - also shows that a third of the public (33%) believe sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter should take voluntary steps to combat the spread of misleading content - while just 7% back “no action” being taken against them.

Meanwhile just over half (51%) of those asked say they have seen “false or misleading” information about the coronavirus pandemic online, including discredited medical claims and debunked stories about a link between Covid-19 and the high-speed mobile network.

Just thirty-seven percent (37%) said they had not seen false or misleading posts, while the rest (12%) said they did not know whether they had.

The Survation study comes amid concern from MPs about the spread of Covid-19 disinformation, with the chair of the Commons digital committee, Julian Knight, this week accusing Google, Facebook and Instagram of a “disregard for the important process of scrutiny“ following a stormy committee session on the steps they are taking to rein in fake news.

"Many people view social media companies as too powerful and unaccountable" - DCMS committee chairman Julian Knight

Facebook has begun notifying users when they share posts containing “harmful” Covid-19 misinformation, with fact-checkers used to flag “false claims or conspiracy theories” for removal.

Meanwhile Twitter has begun pointing users to official channels such as the World Health Organisation when they search for posts on the virus.

But Mr Knight told PoliticsHome: “This poll doesnt surprise me. I think that many people view social media companies as too powerful and unaccountable.

“This impression wasn't helped by their lamentable performance in front of the DCMS select committee where they refused to answer the most basic questions concerning their collective response to disinformation around Covid-19.”

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat digital spokesperson Daisy Cooper said: “The spread of fake news, like global pandemics, is a twenty-first century problem that needs twenty-first century solutions. 

"The Government must ensure that the public have access to trusted news, whether thats by backing public service broadcasting, investing in digital education or requiring social media companies to quickly remove content designed to mislead the public - wherever it comes from.”


The poll also found strong support for laws to curb the use of micro-targeting by tech platforms.

Micro-targeting sees personal data used to aim adverts, messages and services at highly-specific groups of people, a move that makes social media platforms particularly lucrative compared to other advertising alternatives.

But the use of such methods in political campaigning has been hotly debated in recent years, with Facebook last year batting away calls ahead of the UK election to tighten up its own policies on targeted ads.

The study found that 43% would back ministers imposing compulsory action on internet platforms to restrict micro-targeting, while just under a third (32%) said they would support voluntary curbs.

Catherine Stihler, chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation, told PoliticsHome: “The spread of fake news and disinformation on internet platforms has been ignored for too long, and now it is causing major concern during a global health emergency.

“It is sadly not surprising, and yet deeply worrying, that a majority of people in the UK have seen COVID-19 related information they believe to be false.”

She added: “Tech giants have a responsibility to increase transparency and work closely with fact checkers, but voluntary action is never going to be enough by itself.

“It’s encouraging that a majority of people in the UK want the UK Government to take action against social media platforms to prevent the spread of fake news."

A Government spokesperson said: "The spread of false information, which deliberately links baseless conspiracies with Covid-19, is a menace.

"We are working closely with social media platforms to help them identify and remove incorrect claims and promote authoritative sources of information." 

Whitehall sources meanwhile said social media platforms were making "good steps" following the last meeting between Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and representatives in April, with the Cabinet minister pressing them for more information on their plans to tackle disinformation.

"This will futher improve our understanding of the issues and the speed with which they can be addressed as well as making it harder for misinformation to spread," the source said.

  • Survation polled 1,006 UK residents between 27 and 29 April. 

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