The spread of misinformation during the coronavirus pandemic “risks lives” and tech giants are being pushed to do more to stop it, ministers have told MPs.
Social media firms have faced criticism over the spread of misinformation during the pandemic, with research suggesting that large numbers of people are still seeing misleading claims about Covid-19 online.
Appearing before the Home Affairs Select Committee, ministers from the Home Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) were grilled on what the Government is doing to pressure firms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to take stronger action against such content.
Minister for Digital and Culture Caroline Dinenage said: “Clearly, accurate information is really important at the moment – more important than ever – and misleading information about Covid-19, whether its maliciously intended or not, could actually potentially risk lives and that’s why that is of concern to us.”
She said the Government is “working closer than ever with platforms to make sure that information like that is addressed as quickly as possible and taken down”, but acknowledged that there is “still an enormous amount of progress to be made”.
Tech giants have been criticised over the widespread appearance of misleading content during the crisis, such as those offering alleged cures for Covid-19, misleading claims about protective equipment, and conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus.
When questioned by Julian Knight – chairman of the DCMS Select Committee – on whether tech giants have an issue with “democratic scrutiny”, Ms Dinenage said it is not her role to defend such companies, but that a balance is needed whereby tech firms can still grow in the UK but freedom of speech and vulnerable people are also being protected.
Last week, during a session of the DCMS committee, Mr Knight accused executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google of being unable to answer “basic questions” about misinformation on their platforms.
On the subject of disinformation around conspiracy theories linking 5G to the virus, Home Office Minister Baroness Susan Williams said there are two categories of misleading claims appearing online.
“I think you could categorise the disinformation into two elements: that which is harmless conspiracy theorists and that which actually leads to attacks on engineers,” she said.
“But also there is a far-right element to this as well, and therefore when a criminal offence is committed then clearly it’s a serious thing.
“The police I know have been monitoring this – I go on the operational calls with the Home Secretary every single day, I know they are very alive to it, they are monitoring it and they are dealing with it.”
On other harmful content appearing online, she said the Government is “alert” to issues of child sex exploitation and abuse (CSEA) material, confirming that extra government funding has been made available to charities and other organisations to respond to the threat of such content.
Research for the NSPCC has previously suggested that the lockdown could create a “perfect storm” for child abuse as vulnerable young people feel more isolated and spend greater periods online.
MPs also questioned the ministers on the forthcoming Online Harms legislation, expected to be brought forward later this year to more strongly regulate the tech sector.
Committee chairwoman Yvette Cooper argued that, because concerns around closed groups on Facebook, failing to remove blue ticks from accounts on Twitter and other issues raised by the parliamentary committees have previously been ignored, they could be inclined to not fully co-operate with a new regulator.
Ms Dinenage said the Online Harms regulation would be a “comprehensive system of changes” that tech firms must face up to and will need to engage with democracy.
She added that ministers share the “frustration and anger” of committees on the issue of harmful content and will raise the issues with the platforms again.
Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said: “The immense frustration the committee feels about online harms will only be addressed by urgently introducing a regulator with teeth to hold tech firms accountable for the risks on their sites.
“It would be inexcusable not to give the regulator powers to take criminal action against tech firm directors who fail to protect our children.
“The Government has the chance to lead the world in child protection by making Britain the safest place for young people to be online.
“To achieve this they must set out a road map to get the Online Harms Bill on the statute book within 18 months.”