Sun, 10 December 2023

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By Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones
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Right now, the Online Safety Bill doesn’t go far enough to tackle harmful misinformation

4 min read

This landmark legislation should fight for freedom of expression and battle threats posed by bad information — at present, it falls short on both counts.

At Full Fact we see every day just how quickly and easily bad information spreads online. This is a huge concern, and not just for us. From a recent survey, we found that 74 per cent of people across the country are worried about the spread of misinformation. Respondents also told us they believe false information online negatively impacts our democracy. 

The Online Safety Bill should better protect all of us from the threats posed by bad and harmful information. But right now, it doesn’t go far enough to do this, falling far short of the government's aim to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.

All we will have to directly address harmful misinformation and disinformation is an advisory committee with no actual powers

It’s clear lessons have not been learnt from the last few years, where misinformation and disinformation was able to undermine public health. During the pandemic, Full Fact worked tirelessly to counter harmful misinformation and disinformation - exposing and challenging misused statistics on the effectiveness of vaccines (which are still rife across the country), harmful claims on treatments and cures, and conflicting advice for pregnant women - all of which has a very real and present danger for public health. 

Beyond health misinformation, we also worked to rebut bad information that poses a threat to society and democracy - whether that’s misinterpreted research that undermines public trust and debate, faked video footage on the war in Ukraine, conspiracy theories on 5G, or false claims about MPs expenses.

Full Fact doesn't believe the Bill will tackle these challenges in a meaningful way. As it stands, internet companies, located in Silicon Valley, can and will continue to make unaccountable decisions about the safety of UK internet users.  Right now, all we will have in the legislation to directly address harmful misinformation and disinformation is an advisory committee with no actual powers. I sit on enough advisory committees to know that if they were effective in tackling harm and driving change - we wouldn’t need regulation and legislation in the first place.

A further key issue is that we don’t know what types of harmful content the Bill will cover. This needs to be made explicit now, so Parliament has a chance to scrutinise this effectively. The Bill also needs to have stronger obligations on the internet companies so that the measures they put in place effectively halt the spread of harmful misinformation and disinformation. 

This needs to happen in a way that respects freedom of expression - a key tenet of the legislation. Currently, the Bill lets companies “mark their own homework” when it comes to freedom of expression. Minister for technology and the digital economy Chris Philp MP is right when he says the Bill must address material on social media that falls below illegality, but which can cause serious harm.

We need more oversight of content moderation decisions, as well as a requirement in legislation to use proportionate responses that will prevent the unnecessary takedown of content - something that happens too often at the moment. A Bill done right will better protect our freedom of speech, not take away from it.  

When scrutinising and amending the Bill, MPs need to consider if the pandemic happened again tomorrow, would this Bill be strong enough to handle the fallout from harmful misinformation? If we had another terror attack, would the legislation ensure people are not flooded with a proliferation of inaccurate claims spreading quickly when they turn to social media in the immediate aftermath? Ofcom’s role in times of crisis like this is very unclear and urgently needs to be addressed to give the regulator a real time role in ensuring effective response in an emergency. 

The Bill should also introduce a credible plan to improve media literacy across the country. With a third of internet users being unaware of the potential for inaccurate or biased information online, this is an essential first line of defence for countering bad information online.

The next few weeks in Parliament are crucial for MPs to put on the statute book legislation that will strengthen protections for UK users from harmful misinformation and disinformation. If we want to limit the devastating consequences bad information can have on public health and to ensure citizens’ freedom of expression is respected online, then Parliament must take a stand and improve the Online Safety Bill. 


Will Moy is chief executive of Full Fact.

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