Misinformation spreading easily without online harms regulator, MPs say


Misinformation about coronavirus was allowed to spread “virulently” across social media because legislation is still not in place to regulate it, MPs have said.

The Misinformation In The Covid-19 Infodemic Report, published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, says an online harms regulator must be appointed now to hold social media platforms to account.

The report argues that until the proposed duty of care on tech companies is introduced as part of legislation to regulate social media and online platforms, internet companies will not be compelled to act.

MPs also accuse the platforms of using business models which disincentivise action against misinformation while affording opportunities for some to monetise misleading content.

Julian Knight, chair of the committee, said: “We are calling on the Government to name the regulator now and get on with the ‘world-leading’ legislation on social media that we’ve long been promised.

“The proliferation of dangerous claims about Covid-19 has been unstoppable. The leaders of social media companies have failed to tackle the infodemic of misinformation.”

The report highlighted the spread of false claims online linking 5G to the virus, resulting in threats being made against telecoms engineers, as a clear sign of the dangers misinformation can pose.

It also said it had seen evidence of a serious public health impact from misinformation, with false claims about home remedies and cures for the virus meaning “some people have mistakenly turned to unproven home remedies, stopped taking ibuprofen and prescribed medicine, or elsewise ingested harmful chemicals such as disinfectant”.

MPs said the spread of financial scams online during the pandemic was further evidence of the Government needing to act sooner.

“Evidence that tech companies were able to benefit from the monetisation of false information and allowed others to do so is shocking. We need robust regulation to hold these companies to account,” Mr Knight said.

“The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that without due weight of the law, social media companies have no incentive to consider a duty of care to those who use their services.”

The committee has called on the Government to publish draft legislation in the autumn, alongside its full consultation response to the Online Harms White Paper, if a finalised Bill is not ready.

MPs said the final decision on a regulator should be made now.

Earlier this year the Government said it was “minded” to appoint Ofcom but had not yet confirmed that decision.

The committee has also called on ministers to set out a list of online harms to be covered in the legislation, rather than allowing internet companies to do so themselves of what they deem to be acceptable through their terms and conditions.

Its other recommendations include empowering the regulator to impose “significant” fines for non-compliance with the new rules.

Responding to the report, NSPCC’s head of child safety online policy Andy Burrows said: “The committee is right to be concerned about the pace of legislation and whether the regulator will have the teeth it needs to deliver the promise of Britain becoming the safest place in the world to be online.

“The Government must act with urgency and ambition to publish legislation this Autumn that protects users from all forms of harmful content.

“They must also ensure the independent regulator has the necessary ammunition, in the form of criminal sanctions, to enable it to succeed. Anything less will be failing young people.”

A DCMS spokesman said: “We are developing world-leading plans to put a duty of care on online platforms towards their users and will introduce legislation as soon as possible.

“Since the start of the pandemic specialist government units have been working around the clock to identify and rebut false information about coronavirus. We are also working closely with social media platforms to help them identify and remove incorrect claims about the virus that could endanger people’s health.”