To tackle misinformation, Parliament must ensure powerful companies are held to account
Communities face an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation at a time when they are dependent on social media to connect with friends and family, writes Julian Knight MP. | PA Images
There must be sufficient parliamentary oversight of the regulator, independent of government, which is why we have called for the DCMS Committee to have statutory power of veto over the regulator’s chief executive.
The Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented health crisis, but what has made this crisis truly unique is the overabundance of information. Communities face an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation at a time when they are dependent on social media to connect with friends and family. Hoax cures are shared through WhatsApp; 5G conspiracies are streamed via YouTube; fake accounts cause confusion on Twitter.
Take, for instance, the example of the Pirbright Institute, which details how it was affected by false narratives in new evidence we have published. The Institute, which researches amongst other things the transmission of viruses from animals to humans, has been conspiratorially ‘linked’ to Bill and Melinda Gates, the Royal Family, George Soros and the Rothschilds, the rollout of 5G technology and the new £20 note, to name a few, and have been accused of developing and patenting both the virus and vaccine.
Pirbright alleges these are conspiracies rather than facts; they state that this began with a single social media post back in January and culminated in malicious users “doxxing” and threatening staff. Fraudsters created a fake website that has neither been removed by the hosting company nor been blocked for mobile users by Google (though the web version has been) despite repeated requests to do so. Pirbright’s Communications Team has been overwhelmed and has suffered significant reputational damage.
It is unsurprising, then, that evidence implies a turn to public service broadcasting in unprecedented numbers. 44 million people tuned in to BBC News between 23-29 March, the highest figure since 2003 coverage of the Iraq War; up to 10 million tune in to special broadcasts. Channel 4 reached over 14 million people in March alone whilst its documentaries have reached 16% of the population, including over 10% and 15% of young and BAME people respectively in the UK. Online, BBC News has reportedly reached 84 million UK unique browsers (far exceeding the record set during the 2019 election) whilst World Service Languages reached 164 million users in the last week of March alone.
By contrast, research published by Ofcom has found that only 5% of the population (and 10% of young people) consider social media to be their most important news source, despite almost 40% (including a UK-high 46% of Scottish people) using platforms as a source of information. Worryingly, almost half of people surveyed had come across false claims about coronavirus, whilst 40% said that it was hard to tell truth from falsehood. This is compounded when ‘blue tick’ influencers are often those sharing false claims to impressionable audiences.
One reason for the trust gap between social and broadcast media could be the lack of transparent, independent regulation. I have raised concerns with Ofcom’s Chief Executive about the spread of misinformation by organisations such as CGTN and London Live, but no such oversight exists for online platforms. Regulation done right could address this disparity in trust.
To achieve public buy-in, any duty of care must ensure that social media companies listen and act accountably when users, such as the Pirbright Institute, report concerns, but also have robust redressal mechanisms to protect freedom of expression. There must also be sufficient parliamentary oversight of the regulator, independent of government, which is why we have called for the DCMS Committee to have statutory power of veto over the regulator’s chief executive, similar to the Treasury Committee’s veto on senior appointments to the Office of Budget Responsibility.
Parliament must have a continued role in ensuring that powerful companies are held to account. This morning (Thursday 30 April), we’ll be asking social media companies what they are doing to tackle misinformation and how successful they have been. To save lives and protect the NHS, we must make sure we can trust the information we receive. It’s time for Silicon Valley to play its part.
The DCMS Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation takes evidence today from Facebook, Google and Twitter about measures to tackle an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation about COVID-19. Watch live from 09.30.
Julian Knight is the MP for Solihull and the chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee.