Make it illegal to persistently spread Covid-19 conspiracy theories, MP urges

It should be made illegal for conspiracy theorists like David Icke to spread disinformation online, an MP has said.

A number of well-known names with large social media followings have been key distributors of false information during the pandemic, research shows.

The spread of baseless theories linking 5G to ill health led some members of the public to set fire to network masts, while false and dangerous claims that disinfectant could be used to treat the virus were even repeated by US President Donald Trump.

Conservative MP Damian Collins, who has launched a fact-checking service called Infotagion to combat falsehoods during the pandemic, told the PA news agency: "Disinformation can kill people.

"It can lead them to make the wrong decisions about what's good for them and their family, and in the most extreme courses, it could lead them to take a drug or a treatment that could be dangerous to their health."

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LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 19: A man in a face mask walks in front of graffiti reading 'Stop 5G Paranoia' which is painted on a wall in East London on April 19, 2020 in London, England. In a press conference on Thursday, First Secretary of State Dominic Raab announced that the lockdown will remain in place for at least 3 more weeks. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to many countries across the world, claiming over 140,000 lives and infecting more than 2 million people. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
A person wearing a protective face mask sits alongside graffiti reading '5G kills', in Shoreditch, east London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)
The charred base of a 5G mast erected by telecom operator 'Proximus' that was set on fire, in Peltheide, Limburg province on the eve of April 19, 2020. - A fake theory circulating on social media claiming the radiation of 5G masts has been linked to the noval coronavirus, COVID-19, that has swept across the continents killing many thousands of people. (Photo by YORICK JANSENS / Belga / AFP) / Belgium OUT (Photo by YORICK JANSENS/Belga/AFP via Getty Images)
Damaged cabling and telecommunications equipment is pictured following a fire at a phone mast, attatched to the chimney at the converted Fearnleys Mill residential apartment block complex in Huddersfield, northern England, on April 17, 2020. - It is not yet known what caused the mast, which is attached to a chimney at the Fearnleys Mill development, to go up in flames. But the fire comes after a number of mobile phone masts have been set on fire amid claims of a link between 5G and the novel coronavirus COVID-19. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Damaged cabling and telecommunications equipment is pictured following a fire at a phone mast, attatched to the chimney at the converted Fearnleys Mill residential apartment block complex in Huddersfield, northern England, on April 17, 2020. - It is not yet known what caused the mast, which is attached to a chimney at the Fearnleys Mill development, to go up in flames. But the fire comes after a number of mobile phone masts have been set on fire amid claims of a link between 5G and the novel coronavirus COVID-19. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Damaged cabling and telecommunications equipment is pictured following a fire at a phone mast, attatched to the chimney at the converted Fearnleys Mill residential apartment block complex in Huddersfield, northern England, on April 17, 2020. - It is not yet known what caused the mast, which is attached to a chimney at the Fearnleys Mill development, to go up in flames. But the fire comes after a number of mobile phone masts have been set on fire amid claims of a link between 5G and the novel coronavirus COVID-19. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Damaged cabling and telecommunications equipment is pictured following a fire at a phone mast, attatched to the chimney at the converted Fearnleys Mill residential apartment block complex in Huddersfield, northern England, on April 17, 2020. - It is not yet known what caused the mast, which is attached to a chimney at the Fearnleys Mill development, to go up in flames. But the fire comes after a number of mobile phone masts have been set on fire amid claims of a link between 5G and the novel coronavirus COVID-19. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
CHONGQING, April 16, 2020. Workers work at the construction site of a 5G base station at Chongqing Hi-tech Zone in Chongqing, southwest China, April 15, 2020. In recent days, local authorities of Chongqing Hi-tech Zone have sped up efforts to strengthen infrastructure construction under strict measures taken to fight against the COVID-19, which will lead to better transportation and communication conditions in the region. (Photo by Wang Quanchao/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Wang Quanchao via Getty Images)
CARDIFF, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 16: Graffiti in Bute Park that reads '5G wifi is bad' on April 16, 2020 in Cardiff, United Kingdom. A number of 5G phone masts have been destroyed after unsubstantiated claims they cause coronavirus. In a press conference on Thursday, First Secretary of State Dominic Raab announced that the lockdown will remain in place for at least 3 more weeks. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to many countries across the world, claiming over 140,000 lives and infecting more than 2 million people. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 14: Exterior of 5G International Innovation Harbor at North Bund Area on April 14, 2020 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Wang Gang/VCG via Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 10: A woman walks her dog in-front of graffiti saying 'Stop 5G' on April 10, 2020 in London, England. Public Easter events have been cancelled across the country, with the government urging the public to respect lockdown measures by celebrating the holiday in their homes. Over 1.5 million people across the world have been infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus, with over 7,000 fatalities recorded in the United Kingdom. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
A man walks past an advertisement for the Samsung Galaxy Note10 5G smartphone at a telecom shop in Seoul on April 7, 2020. - Samsung Electronics' operating profits inched up 2.7 percent in the first quarter, the world's biggest manufacturer of smartphones and memory chips estimated April 7. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)
SUINING, CHINA - MARCH 12, 2020 - A employees of 5g product supporting electronic enterprise Sichuan Huaci Technology Co., Ltd. works in the production line, Suining City, Sichuan Province, China, March 12, 2020.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Costfoto / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 04: A woman observes a light and touch screen inside a bus reading 'Teatre Lliure 1999', during the presentation of the '5G Augmented Tourism', on March 04, 2020 in BARCELONA, Spain. (Photo by David Zorrakino/Europa Press via Getty Images)
27 February 2020, Bavaria, Regensburg: A test vehicle with antennas for the 5G mobile communications standard is driving on Continental's factory premises. Photo: Armin Weigel/dpa (Photo by Armin Weigel/picture alliance via Getty Images)
CHENGDU, CHINA - FEBRUARY 27: Doctors at West China Hospital of Sichuan University use 5G technology to diagnose COVID-19 patients on February 27, 2020 in Chengdu, Sichuan Province of China. Li Zhenlin, the Deputy Director of the Radiology Department at the hospital has remotely diagnosed 17 patients so far. The process for each patient takes about five minutes. Through remote 5G transmissions, doctors are able to control the CT scanners in remote hospitals, from a far distance, on a real-time basis. (Photo by Liu Zhongjun/China News Service via Getty Images)
NEW YORK CITY, UNITED STATES - 2020/02/20: Customers at a T-Mobile store, with 5G signage. (Photo Illustration by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
27 February 2020, Bavaria, Regensburg: In a measuring room (absorber hall) the function of an intelligent antenna module with 5G transceiver (transmitter and receiver unit) is tested. Photo: Armin Weigel/dpa (Photo by Armin Weigel/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Huawei's 5G Product Line President, Yang Chaobin, speaks during a 5G event in London, on February 20, 2020. - Washington has the right to block US federal agencies from buying products by Huawei on cybersecurity grounds, a judge has ruled, dismissing the Chinese telecom giant's legal challenge to a purchase ban. Britain in January gave the green light to a limited role for Chinese telecoms giant Huawei in the country's 5G network, in a decision that left the United States "disappointed" after it called for a total ban. (Photo by Isabel INFANTES / AFP) (Photo by ISABEL INFANTES/AFP via Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 30: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab visit Epic Games Lab on January 30, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. The U.S. Secretary of State is on a two-day visit to the U.K to discuss a number of issues including the role of Huawei in British 5G Networks, the extradition request for Anne Sacoolas and Donald Trump’s plans for the Middle East. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque – WPA Pool/Getty Images)
A man walks past an advertisement for the Samsung Galaxy Note10 5G smartphone at a showroom in Seoul on January 30, 2020. - The world's biggest smartphone maker, Samsung Electronics, reported a slump in fourth-quarter net profits on January 30, blaming weakening demand in key products and falling chip prices. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)
INDIA - 2020/01/29: In this photo illustration a Huawei logo seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JANUARY 29: General view of the venue at Media Day At Verizon 5G Stadium At Super Bowl LIVE on January 29, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Verizon)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JANUARY 29: General view of the atmosphere during Media Day At Verizon 5G Stadium At Super Bowl LIVE on January 29, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Verizon)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - JANUARY 29: European Commissioner in charge of the Internal Market, Thierry Breton gives a press conference on the 5G security toolbox at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium on January 29, 2020. - The EU on Wednesday announced strict guidelines for new 5G communications infrastructure, urging member states to screen suppliers for security risks, but stopped short of banning Chinese giant Huawei. The plan urges EU member states to "assess the risk profile of suppliers" and "apply relevant restrictions for suppliers considered to be high risk" accordingly, including shutting them out of "key assets defined as critical and sensitive". (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JANUARY 29: General view of the atmosphere during Media Day At Verizon 5G Stadium At Super Bowl LIVE on January 29, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Verizon)
LONDON, April 13, 2020 .File photo taken on Jan. 28, 2020 shows a Huawei 5G mobile phone testing speed in Huawei 5G Innovation and Experience Center in London, Britain. Huawei is "focused on keeping Britain connected" and that is "the biggest contribution we can make" to its national effort against the COVID-19 pandemic, said Huawei's Vice President Victor Zhang in an open letter released on April 13, 2020. (Photo by Han Yan/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Han Yan via Getty Images)
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Mr Collins, former chairman of the Commons' digital, culture, media and sport committee, said there need to be "requirements in law" to stop people who are persistently spreading disinformation online, such as Mr Icke.

"It's not good enough that we just have to remove certain posts that are wrong," he said.

"If there is a certain channel, group or individual that is persistently pushing this information out then that sort of malicious abuse of social media in a public health emergency should be an offence."

Amir Khan, Eamonn Holmes and Amanda Holden
Amir Khan, Eamonn Holmes and Amanda Holden have been criticised for sharing disinformation online during the pandemic (PA)

Mr Collins added that famous figures with large followings also needed to act more responsibly with what they share online.

In April, This Morning presenter Eamonn Holmes was issued guidance by media watchdog Ofcom after he made comments on TV linking Covid-19 to 5G.

However, a number of other celebrities – including Amanda Holden, boxer Amir Khan, and Zombieland star Woody Harrelson – have shared similar theories with millions of followers online without any sanction.

Damian Collins
Damian Collins said it should be an "offence" to distribute misleading information during the ongoing health crisis (PA)

Research by Oxford's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that while prominent public figures were responsible for producing 20% of false claims about the virus, their posts accounted for 69% of total social media engagement.

Dr Daniel Allington, a senior lecturer in social and cultural artificial intelligence at King's College London, undertook research which found that people who believe coronavirus conspiracy theories are more likely to flout lockdown rules, putting themselves and others at risk.

Mr Collins has launched an online fact-checking service (Infotagion.com)

However, he said there was a difference between celebrities mistakenly sharing information with their followers and "professional" conspiracy theorists, such as Mr Icke.

He said: "I am not sure I want to regulate what someone like Amir Khan says, but then you have someone like David Icke, or (conspiracy theory site) London Real, and their business is creating content which goes online, which they are able to monetise.

"They are media businesses and they should be recognised as such and regulated as such."

The UK Government is set to give Ofcom new powers to oversee online regulation, though details of when or exactly how these powers may come in to effect are not yet available.

In April, Ofcom sanctioned ESTV, the operator of TV station London Live, after it broadcast a "largely unchallenged" interview with Mr Icke on coronavirus.

However, the former broadcaster has often been able to reach a far greater audience online without restriction.

While Mr Icke's YouTube account was recently removed from the platform, many more videos featuring him have millions of views.

"I think more people will have seen that interview with David Icke on YouTube than they would have done on London Live," said Dr Allington.

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