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Conservative MP To Push For Law To Avoid A “Post-Truth World” Online

John Penrose resigned as the government's Anti-Corruption Champion in 2022 over Boris Johnson breaking the ministerial code (Alamy)

4 min read

Conservative MP John Penrose has said that legislation to tackle online bias and misinformation is needed to prevent the emergence of a “post-truth world”, as he plans an amendment to the Media Bill.

Penrose, the MP for Weston-super-Mare, was the United Kingdom Anti-Corruption Champion in the Home Office between 2017 and 2022, and has consistently called on the government to do more to tackle the threats of misinformation and disinformation. 

Earlier this year, Penrose spoke in Parliament to say there were large gaps remaining in the Online Safety Bill, which has now passed into law. The government passed their own version of one of Penrose’s amendments which dealt with the provenance and understanding of where information posted on the internet comes from.

However, Penrose said an area on which the Bill remained “particularly weak” was putting a duty on internet platforms to prevent misinformation, disinformation, and bias. Many campaigners agreed that this was one of many gaps left in the legislation.  

“I hope that everyone in this House accepts that that area will need to be revisited in due course,” he said when it was debated in the Commons, with then-minister Paul Scully responding that “undoubtedly we will have to come back to that point”.

Penrose now wants to have this area considered in the government’s new Media Bill, and is currently “engaged in a delicate dance” to figure out how he can bring forward an amendment which will be in scope of the legislation.

He said his intention was “to try and deal with stuff which is factually accurate, but biased”.

“For more than half a century, we've had rules to ensure balance, and the broadcast codes around undue prominence and balance are designed specifically to deal with this,” he told PoliticsHome.

“In the modern world, the online world leads you down all sorts of radicalisation rabbit holes on everything from Islamic Jihad through to vaccine denial.

“All the stuff about provenance and where the information comes from in the world won't solve that problem. What we have always accepted when it comes to broadcasters is that this matters, because otherwise you end up with radicalisation and you lose that sort of democratic consensus forging the centre ground.

“We don't want to live in a post-truth world.”

The Conservative MP described what he perceives as the danger of “filter bubbles” on social media, where algorithms feed you more and more of what you’re interested in – in his case, fishing tackles – until you are only exposed to a one-sided version of the world. 

“When the online platform chooses stuff to serve up to us things we haven't chosen, that's effectively a digital modern version of the editorial decisions that are being taken every day in newsrooms,” he said.

“I think we need to realise that given the enormous, albeit very, very personalised, audiences which the big online platforms have, we need to start thinking about this part of what they do, in the same way as we have long thought about broadcasters.”

He hopes to table an amendment which will specify that the duty for balance should apply in the online world.

This is, however, easier said than done: Firstly, because the internet is such a vast space that crosses international borders and a multitude of topics that are covered by different governmental departments; secondly, because online platforms and regulators would have to walk the tightrope between ensuring a balance of content while not curtailing freedom of speech. There are also many questions surrounding the resources and powers available to regulators in order to ensure companies comply with the rules.

Despite the challenges, Penrose was undeterred, arguing that legislation is not there to specify how companies achieve outcomes, but is there to set the desired outcomes. 

“I don't think policymakers should be fazed by the notion that really rich and incredibly well resourced, incredibly profitable, international online platforms will have to work out how to do this,” he said.

“I don't think we should say ‘it's all too difficult, we shouldn't even ask them’... this is far too important for that.”

With a UK general election coming up within the next 12 months, as well as local elections, mayoral elections, and elections in the United States and many other countries, Penrose said tackling misinformation and disinformation will be more important than ever.

As violent conflicts continue in Gaza, Ukraine and multiple other regions of the world, the former Anti-Corruption Champion described next year as an “acid test” for whether democracies can protect the quality of political debate and free speech.

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