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Knowingly sharing Covid-19 disinformation should be an offence, says ex-DCMS Chair

Posted on: March 30, 2020 by Mariella Brown

The Society of Editors has welcomed a new initiative to spotlight fake news surrounding the Covid-19 virus, but warned that calls to criminalise disinformation could unintentionally lead to the loss of freedoms.

Former chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee Damian Collins MP called for the deliberate sharing of fake news about coronavirus to be made an offence as he launched an online initiative to expose Covid-19 disinformation.

Speaking on the BBC’s Emma Barnett Show this morning (30 March), Damian Collins called for sanctions for “organisations that are maliciously, deliberately, and at scale pushing disinformation through social media networks.”

Collins continued: “I think it should be an offence to do that [circulate harmful public health information] at scale and maliciously and knowingly. And for the social media companies themselves if that activity is reported to them and they fail to act against that content then I think that should be an offence for them to fail to act as well.”

The Society of Editors welcomed the initiative but warned of the risks of introducing laws to curtail the spread of disinformation fearing that could lead to censorship and restricting freedom of expression.

“It is easy to call for the spreading of misinformation on matters of health to be made criminal offences, but the devil is usually in the detail,” said SoE executive director Ian Murray. 

“While Mr Collins’ suggestion is for organisations that spread fake health news to be targeted along with digital platforms that do not remove misinformation when asked, once the laws are in place the temptation is always to go further.

“And when this crisis passes will such laws then be used to police what is said on the internet in other ways? Laws produced in haste usually turn out to be blunt instruments that have all manner of unintended consequences.”

The Society also said any initiative to spotlight the dangers posed by misinformation should highlight the work of the mainstream media in providing fact-based, edited news and information.

Collins’ new initiative Infotagion – backed by the government – will allow the public to check an archive of fake news screenshots to see whether information they have received via WhatsApp or on a social media post is factually accurate. The service will also allow the public to send in their own screenshots of fake news as evidence to be checked. 

More information about the scheme can be found here.