We must do more to police the spread of fake news and disinformation about Covid-19
An official NHS Coronavirus sign. However, there has been an ‘infodemic’ of disinformation about the coronavirus spreading rapidly around the world, writes Damian Collins MP. | PA Images
In response to this problem, I have launched a new service called Infotagion, enabling people to check information they see that doesn’t look right.
The coronavirus is the first major public health crisis of the social media age. That is significant because whilst there has never been more information from around the world circulating more freely, the system of creating and sharing news through messaging services like WhatsApp and major platforms like Facebook and Twitter, is open to massive abuse.
Every day brings major new announcements about the measures being taken to combat the virus, guidance for the public on how to keep safe, and support for those affected by its wider impacts on society.
Yet alongside this there has been what the World Health Organisation has called an ‘infodemic’ of disinformation about the coronavirus spreading rapidly around the world. We have all seen examples of this content being shared in our friends and family networks on social media and through messaging apps.
These have included claims that drinking warm water every 15 minutes can stop you getting the virus, to why taking ibuprofen tablets accelerates its progress. People have received fraudulent texts supposedly from the government, telling them they’ve been fined for making an unnecessary journey from their home, and messages have circulated that during night time curfews military helicopters will spray our cities with disinfectant to kill Covid-19.
Fake news stories have also claimed that the virus was caused not by the mutation of an infection that spread between animals and on to humans in China, but instead was created by Bill Gates, or 5G wireless signals.
While governments are doing all they can to get their message across, I believe we can do more to respond to the fake news people are actually seeing.
Often the agents of disinformation just rely on creating doubt and confusion, rather than actually having to establish an alternative set of facts. When you receive a message from a friend, which has supposedly come from someone in the health service or an international hospital, giving you advice on what you can do to avoid getting Covid-19, who do you believe?
It’s in response to this problem that I have launched a new service called Infotagion, which can be found online at infotagion.com and also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. This project has been created with Iconic Labs who previously led the development of Unilad and is being supported by an international group of academics and campaigners with a strong track record in identifying and combatting disinformation campaigns. We also have the backing of a cross party group of parliamentarians from the UK, Ireland and Canada.
We want people to be able to check something they see that doesn’t look right. They can do this by sending Infotagion a link to or screenshot of suspected disinformation, and we will check it against trusted and official sources of information. The results will be posted on the website, creating an open archive of what people are seeing and recommendations on how they should respond to it.
We also hope that by demonstrating the extent of the problem of disinformation around Covid-19 that the big tech companies will take more effective action against the source of it, and the means by which it is being distributed.
I certainly believe that we should make it an offence for people to knowingly, maliciously and at scale spread disinformation about Covid-19 with the intent of harming the public health. The major tech companies should act not just against the content itself, but also the accounts, groups and networks that are being manipulated to try and make it reach large audiences.
The debate about disinformation has mostly focused over the last few years on election interference and the threat to democracy from orchestrated campaigns, in particular those run by agencies backed by foreign states.
The ‘infodemic’ around the coronavirus also demonstrates, like the anti-vaccine movement before it, the risk of physical harm that can come from online disinformation. Whilst in a free society we respect people’s right to speak their mind, there has always been a cross over between freedom of expression and the negative impact that can have on the lives of others.
We cannot leave the policing of that line to the big tech companies. It’s time to call out the agents of disinformation and warn each other about what we’ve seen.
Damian Collins is the Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe.