Covid-19 information sign in London

Spreading Covid-19 deception should be an offence, says MP

Image credit: REUTERS/Kevin Coombs

Damian Collins, the Tory MP for Folkestone and Hythe, has launched an online service to combat coronavirus-related deceptions and called for knowingly spreading these deceptions to be made an offence.

Collins, who is the former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee, has taken a leading role in the fight against fake news online, including convening an 'International Grand Committee on Disinformation' as part of an investigation into the impact of fake news (particularly fake news shared on social media platforms) on democracy.

“Lots of the debate around fake news has been in the political context, around election campaigning, but here we are seeing it in a public health crisis,” Collins told the PA news agency. “In some ways, this is the first public health crisis in the age of social media disinformation and therefore it requires a different response.”

The coronavirus pandemic has caused more than 30,000 deaths worldwide so far and led to the virtual shutdown of global economies in an effort to minimise transmission of the novel coronavirus which causes Covid-19.

The pandemic has also inspired a flurry of dangerous disinformation and misinformation produced and peddled by various influential players, including a “significant disinformation campaign” from the Russian media, according to an EU report. False narratives with significant traction include that the virus was engineered as a biological weapon by Chinese scientists or that it was caused by the rollout of 5G technology.

Collins has said that it should be an offence for someone to “knowingly and maliciously spread disinformation” which could be harmful to public health. “I think that should be an offence to do that and should be an offence for social media companies not to take that content down,” he said.

Collins said that much of the confusion around the pandemic comes is due to the sheer volume of new information emerging every day, such as new restrictions and new scientific discoveries.

“The information contagion around Covid-19 is so dangerous, because there is so much that people don’t know and so much happening all the time, that is very easy for false rumours to take hold and spread,” he said.

“Therefore, we need to be able to challenge these publicly as they happen and get people more used to questioning what they see and going to a service where they can actually check whether that message is true.”

Collins has partnered with a free-to-access website called Infotagion, which allows members of the public to share screenshots of coronavirus-related information they have seen online. A team of fact checkers will check these submissions against trusted sources and give traffic light answers on whether they are true or false. According to Collins, the service will highlight disinformation and alert social media platforms that it must be removed.

Meanwhile, the government is working on its own multi-pronged approach to tackling deceptive content relating to the pandemic. The Cabinet Office’s Rapid Response Unit is working with various government departments in order to decide on the appropriate responses when disinformation is identified online. The government has said that up to 70 incidents a week, often involving multiple deceptive claims, are being identified and resolved.

The UK government has also endorsed a tool for assessing the trustworthiness of websites, which flags up publishers which peddle “dangerous information” about the coronavirus pandemic. NewsGuard – which is recognised for its browser extension which allocates green or red icons to news sources depending on how their trustworthiness is scored – has been tracking publishers of deceptive material about the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, it has listed more than 100 websites which have published “materially false information” about the virus. Some of these sites have had more engagement over a 24-hour period than some NHS websites have received in an entire month.

NewsGuard has removed its paywalls to ensure that people across the UK can access its services.

“We need people to follow the advice of our medical experts so we can protect the NHS and save lives,” said Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden, “but false or misleading information about coronavirus shared online could undermine our efforts. This very welcome move by NewsGuard will give people a free and effective tool, helping them access trustworthy news sources during these challenging times.”

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