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Labour calls for emergency laws to stop anti-vax disinformation

Posted on: November 16, 2020 by Mariella Brown

The Society of Editors has welcomed an assurance from Labour shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens that calls for legislation to combat online anti-vaccination misinformation do not include added regulation for the media.

Stevens called for urgent legislation to be introduced to combat the spread of online disinformation against any Covid-19 vaccinations.

The government has been urged to put an onus on social media companies to have systems in place which can identify and remove dangerous anti-vax content as swiftly as possible, and prioritise financial sanctions and criminal penalties in the case of continuous breaches.

The news comes as the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden last week announced that tech giants Google, Facebook and Twitter would commit to the principle that no company should “profit from or promote” Covid-19 anti-vaccine mis or disinformation.

However, Shadow Culture Secretary Jo Stevens and Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth wrote to Mr Dowden this weekend warning that the spread of disinformation online presents a “real and present danger” to vaccination efforts and called on the Government to bring forward online harms legislation.

Ms Stevens told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that despite promises by the government to bring forward legislation on online harms, legislation “may not be in place until 2024.”

Acknowledging the existing regulations surrounding print and broadcast media, the Shadow Culture Secretary said that equivalent regulation should be extended to tech giants.

“We think there should be regulation in place to cover social media companies,” she said. “There are regulations, laws in place covering broadcast media and print media. Social media has a much bigger reach. You’re talking about platforms that facilitate the spreading of information – good and bad – to billions of people across the globe. They have a reach that no other broadcaster or print media outfit does.”

The Society of Editors has welcomed the Shadow Culture Secretary’s comments on the existing regulation of trusted news media. However, the SoE’s executive director has warned that a clear and absolute exemption for mainstream media content should be included in any legislation.

SoE executive director Ian Murray added, “The Society has urged caution around attempts to tackle misinformation and disinformation online as part of Online Harms legislation and remains wary of any attempt by officials to create a body that decides what is truth or misinformation.”

The Shadow Culture Secretary emphasised her proposals would be concerned with placing the responsibility for the removal of disinformation on to social media companies, not criminalising individual members of the public.

“If there are continuous breaches [… then there should be] proper sanctions, financial penalties, that are meaningful in terms of the size of these huge global companies but also criminal penalties if there’s aggravated and persistent breaches,” she told Marr.

Under Ms Stevens’ proposals personal liability for senior directors at social media companies would be introduced.

Last week the government announced it had reached an agreement with the social media giants to limit the spread of false information surrounding the Covid-19 vaccines being developed and their intended introduction.