Time to call-out the public on the sharing of Covid-19 misinformation?

In the war against the Covid-19 virus is it time to talk tough to the rumour-spreading public?

There will be few who do not recognise the dangers posed during this time of national crisis by misinformation concerning the coronavirus. Social media is rife with home-spun cures, inane methods of immunity and the usual ruck of conspiracy theories as to cause and effect.

While some of these comments would be comical – drinking cow urine, swallowing chlorine dioxide, blowing a hair dryer up the nose (the latter from a Florida County Commissioner) – under other circumstances, many are incredibly dangerous to both health and morale.

The risk to health and life are obvious if official health warnings are disregarded.  The risk to society is even greater if belief in those in authority is undermined to such an extent that morale collapses and the public begins to take matters into its own hands. That way leads to martial law.

It is not surprising then that the government should seek to curb the worst excesses on social media. But how far can they or should they go in controlling the message?

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has called on members of the public to flag up examples of disinformation on social media about the coronavirus. 

As part of its investigations, a sub-committee looking into on-line harms will hold hearings with social media companies alongside others to focus on what is being done to tackle deliberate attempts to present false narratives about Covid-19. The committee’s intervention comes after DCMS announced earlier this month that it was setting up a new Whitehall unit to tackle fake news around the coronavirus on social media platforms.

Examples sent in by members of the public will be considered as evidence to be presented to the Government and to social media companies.

DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP went so far as to wag a finger at the digital platforms, warning: “The deliberate spreading of false information about Covid-19 could have serious consequences.

“There have been some shocking examples in recent weeks, and we want people to send us what they’ve come across.

“Tech giants who allow this to proliferate on their platforms are morally responsible for tackling disinformation and should face penalties.”

All stirring stuff that will receive great applause from the public and the mainstream media which, rightly, sees itself as the legitimate source of edited, well-researched, fact-based news and information on the crisis.

But is it a simple case of blaming the tech giants for doing nothing? They would argue that much is already being done.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, vice president of Global Affairs and Communications for Facebook since 2018, earlier this week gave an update on the digital giant’s efforts to tackle the issue in a piece titled ‘Combating Covid-19 misinformation across our apps’.

Clegg said that in relation to Facebook and Instagram specifically the platform continues to direct people to sites, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other official sources of information.

A new Covid-19 Information Centre, available soon globally and currently featured at the top of the News Feed on Facebook in several countries, includes real-time updates from national health authorities and global organisations.

Clegg went on to list a host of activities Facebook carries out to tackle and remove misinformation it identifies would contribute to imminent physical harm. Conspiracy theories, he added, would be looked at and decided if they should be flagged as such and debunked.

All well and good, but obviously not going far enough if the examples now presumably being provided to the DCMS are to go by.

And it’s not as though the tech giants haven’t acted in this area before. In 2018, for instance, Facebook took down false information about a measles outbreak in Samoa and rumours about the polio vaccine in Pakistan which risked harm to health aid workers were similarly targeted.

Indeed, by its own admission, Facebook has since January applied its policies to misinformation about Covid-19 “to remove posts that make false claims about cures, treatments, the availability of essential services or the location and severity of the outbreak”. And yet the outlandish claims and deliberate misinformation still get through.

What then are the next steps? How will the DCMS fulfil its threat to impose penalties if the tech giants cannot or will not go further? And is there something in the nature of trying to catch the wind in its efforts?

For while the digital giants certainly hold some responsibility for disinformation and fake news placed on their platforms, and should and must be expected to take whatever steps they can to prevent such dangers, can they ever do enough?

In the end is it not the role of the government and the public themselves to take their own steps?

Julian Knight appeared to make such a claim when in announcing the call for evidence of disinformation, he added: “Much of this is happening on social media through private channels, putting the onus on friends and family to identify whether the information they are seeing is misleading.”

Surely that is shorthand for: “if you think it is fake news then call it out as such and certainly don’t spread it.”

OK, I’m putting words in the government’s mouth, but in essence shouldn’t this play a large part in their approach to this problem? Calling-out the public for spreading rumours – innocently in the vast majority of cases – would seem to be just as vital as calling on the tech giants to take down such claims whenever and wherever they can be found.

This is after all a war, and in previous conflicts government has had no qualms about urging the public to resist the temptation to spread rumour and fearmongering. ‘Loose lips sink ships’ may have been a US slogan, but the UK used similar warnings to remind the public of the risks posed by gossip and rumour. Public information films were made on the subject :

“Of all the virus that attack the vulnerable nerve tissues of a nation at war, rumor (sic) is the most malignant,” reported LIFE magazine in 1942. “Its most dangerous carriers are innocent folk who love to tell a tale.” Quite.

And there are real risks to our liberties should too much emphasis be placed on the tech giants in this battle. Faced with threats of punishment unless they do enough, the digital platforms may resort to using blunt instruments such as algorithms to seek out and remove any content that appears to stray from the official line. Such measures would result in the stifling of legitimate debate and scrutiny of government actions. It could also, ironically, reduce the ability to openly debate and debunk information paraded by global official sources –  such as the Chinese claim that the virus was deliberately introduced to Wuhan by the US military, or Iranian insistence that the emergency was created by Israel.

Indeed, once we enter the realm of whose official version has merit and whose is disinformation, we face a whole new raft of challenges.

What is obvious is that there is no one silver bullet for this challenge. The digital giants must play their part, as should the public in using common sense and resisting the urge to push the send button.

For the mainstream media its growing role in this battle seems assured as data shows the public turning in ever growing numbers to recognised news brands for trusted information. It is a welcome recognition of the industry’s long-established role but comes with a heavy burden of responsibility.

Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors 

Nick Clegg: Action by Facebook to combat fake news over Covid-19 here.

DCMS calls for coronavirus misinformation here.