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Calls for social media firms to face consequences for misinformation spread

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More than 3 in 5 US adults would back a bill making social media platforms liable for the spread of misinformation during health emergencies, according to a new survey.

A poll by Morning Consult, a US data intelligence agency, has revealed that a significant majority of people believe that social media platforms are undoubtedly responsible for continuing to allow Covid-19 misinformation to circulate and that there should be consequences for the companies because of this.

The poll of 2,201 US adults was conducted between July 23-25. 78 per cent of Democrats and 52 per cent of Republicans said they would support legislation holding internet companies responsible for misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines and other public health crises. 35 per cent of adults said social media companies are doing a “poor” job of curbing the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation, while just 27 per cent stated they consider their performance “fair.”

While the public is predominantly more inclined to initially blame the users who post Covid-19 misinformation (34 per cent), people also expect social media companies (27 per cent) to shoulder some responsibility for failing to control the spread of false information about the coronavirus on platforms.

With vaccination rates slowing in the US and the Delta variant becoming the predominant Covid strain infecting Americans, social media companies have come under increasing scrutiny for continuing to allow Covid-19 misinformation to spread on their platforms.

The New Morning Consult poll indicates that the public largely agrees that social media plays a role in slowing progress towards any kind of true post-pandemic existence, with nearly two-thirds of poll respondents backing legislation that would punish the platforms that enable the proliferation of misinformation.

63 per cent of adults said they’d support a federal bill holding internet platforms responsible if content generated by their users and other third parties spread misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines and public health emergencies, with a party affiliation split of 78 per cent of Democrats, 57 per cent of independents and 52 per cent of Republicans.

By contrast, just over one in five adults said they were against holding platforms accountable for the spread of misinformation amid public health crises. The share of those who didn’t know or had no opinion ranged from 10 per cent (Democrats) to 21 per cent (independents).

Last week, US President Joe Biden made a speech in which he suggested that social media giants were “killing people” by allowing vaccine misinformation to run wild on their platforms, in a pointed effort to jolt social media companies into taking more decisive action. Facebook pushed back on Biden's comment, highlighting the commendable work it has indeed done since the pandemic began in promoting vaccination to its users and suppressing misinformation.

It has also been proven that the vast majority of misinformation - which gets pushed directly and indirectly to millions of users by the complex platform algorithms - in fact originates from a tiny number of individuals. A report from the 'Centre for Countering Digital Hate' showed that only 12 individuals — aka the 'Disinformation Dozen' — were responsible for 65 per cent of all the anti-vaccine content appearing across all social media platforms, and up to 73 per cent specifically on Facebook.

The Morning Consult poll also shows the public's unequivocal opinion of misinformation posts: only 10 per cent said they believed that false or misleading information about the coronavirus should not be removed.

Despite myriad criticisms of its handling of misinformation, Facebook continued to enjoy a bumper year during the pandemic, as shown by its latest profit report. Facebook recorded $29.1bn in sales and made $10.4bn in profit, exceeding Wall Street’s expectations. Revenue rose by 56 per cent from the previous period, with net income more than doubling.

The average price of an ad on Facebook increased by 47 per cent in the second quarter of 2021, while the overall number of ads bought on the site rose by 6 per cent, as millions of users found themselves still stuck at home during lockdowns and spending more time in front of their device screens.

However, Facebook’s shares still dropped by close to 5 per cent after trading closed yesterday, with investors increasingly concerned about the long-term viability of Facebook's ad-based revenue model in light of Apple turning the privacy screw, enabling users of its products to reject tracking - a key method by which Facebook acquires user data, which it uses as leverage to charge advertisers on its platform.

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