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DCMS Committee publishes Covid-19 evidence to misinformation enquiry

Posted on: April 29, 2020 by Ian Murray

Dismissing potentially harmful theories surrounding the Covid-19 virus out of hand may not be the best approach, says Full Fact.

Giving evidence to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee looking into online harms and misinformation, the fact-checking body says it is important to understand the origins of false claims.

The Committee asked for evidence  of misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic which has now been published on the DCMS Sub-committee website a day ahead of a hearing by the Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation with senior executives of Twitter, Facebook and Google.

Social media companies face questioning from MPs about their action and its effectiveness in reducing the deliberate spreading of harmful content about the Covid-19 pandemic at tomorrow’s hearing.

Senior executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter will be asked about measures they have put in place to tackle a coronavirus ‘infodemic’ of false narratives such as conspiracy theories around 5G broadband or claims of fake Twitter accounts posing as those of NHS staff. The wider use of these measures to address online harms beyond the crisis will also be considered. 

Written evidence has been provided by several organisations and media bodies, including Channel 4, the BBC, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, Full Fact and Hacked Off.

Full Fact revealed it has published over 80 fact checks on claims about the virus or its effects resulting in more than six million-page views.

“We’ve seen a range of claims continue to surface and spread on social media about a link between 5G and the outbreak of Covid-19, with amplification from a range of public figures, celebrities and some media outlets. These include the claim circulating on social media that the design of the new £20 note contains a symbol representing a “5G tower” and the coronavirus. The ‘5G tower’ is Margate Lighthouse and the ‘coronavirus’ is based on a famous staircase at the Tate Britain art gallery. We have also challenged reporting in the mainstream media that links 5G and the new coronavirus,” 

“It’s not clear that simply dismissing the theories about 5G and Covid-19 is the right approach, so we have done some digging into where historical and more general concerns about 5G come from and what happened when they ‘met’ Covid-19. While the idea that 5G is harmful may seem to have exploded from nowhere during the coronavirus pandemic, in fact it has been steadily building online for years. Its origins can be traced back even further, to panics about earlier generations of mobile phone and wireless technology at the turn of the millennium.”

Evidence submitted by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change on tackling false information in the pandemic identifies gaps in action taken by social media platforms and a lack of consistency across platforms. 

On policy solutions, it warns against enforcement action against sharers such as removing access to platforms, fines or prosecution for spreading misinformation on the grounds that it would be unlikely to be effective and could drive greater use of encrypted messages.

The Pirbright Institute, which studies infectious diseases in livestock, alleges in its evidence how a fake website was set up to reinforce conspiracy theories falsely linking its work to the human coronavirus. Failures to act against false information are said by the institute to have caused it significant reputational damage.

An upswing in viewing figures for public service broadcasting networks indicate levels of trust not witnessed by social media. BBC News recorded its highest viewing figures since the 2003 coverage of the Iraq war. Channel 4 reports its documentaries have reached 16% of the population, including over 10% and 15% of young and BAME people respectively in the UK.

Channel 4 reported: “One of the key concerns is the impact this could have on young people, who are increasingly consuming news through online platforms. 

“In order to address disinformation directly, Channel 4 News’ Coronavirus FactCheck – which has its own website12 and a presence on social media13 – has been addressing the key COVID-19 questions that the British public need the answer to. The website answers popular questions e.g.; when a vaccine will be ready, whether we’ll have enough ventilators and whether chloroquine is a miracle treatment needed. Instead of amplifying misinformation about miracle-cures or WhatsApp rumours, FactCheck hones in on the most important policy decisions and announcements. 

The BBC reports: “The BBC is fully aware that young audiences are not immune to fake news and misinformation around Covid-19 and have questions about some of the things they have seen and read. BBC Newsround presenters, Dr Chris (a qualified virologist) and Dr X and from Operation Ouch (a popular CBBC programme) answered children’s question on the virus, informing and reassuring the audience in a way they could easily identify with. This session had 300,000 views online, and more than half a million on social media. And debunking myths around children’s pets and the virus was tackled in a Q&A with CBBC Pets Factor vet Dr James.

“The BBC is committed to helping young people identify fake news and recognises the even greater importance of this role in the Covid-19 pandemic. BBC Newsround’s has run pieces How to spot fake Coronavirus news? and ‘Coronavirus: Can you separate myth from fact’ which have had 250,000 unique browsers.

“The BBC Monitoring’s Disinformation Team produces reports on Covid-19 for the BBC and external stakeholders. The team is responsible for misinformation daily updates, providing crucial lines and updates across the BBC. It also produces a fortnightly disinformation newsletter (the latest version is from early April 2020), which is shared with BBC journalists and editors, BBC Monitoring’s government users and commercial customers.

This monitoring has proved instrumental in identifying fake news, and its reach. For example, the team played a major role in spotting an imposter BBC Breaking Twitter account, which was spreading an untrue story about the health of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It was taken down quickly by Twitter, but BBC Monitoring’s team in Delhi spotted that the fake post had been picked up by Pakistan’s prominent Dawn TV channel which it aired for a short while as a news flash.”

In its evidence, Hacked Off attacks the coverage of four mainstream publishers – The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Mirror and The Telegraph. The media campaigning group also attacks the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) for failing to take action.