Inaccurate news stories and posts circulating online could cost lives, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has warned.
Writing in The Telegraph today (30 March), Oliver Dowden MP said that while the news media was fulfilling a ‘vital’ role amid the crisis in providing accurate news and updates to the public, the same could not be said for content circulating on social media.
He said: “The country’s news media – broadcast, print and online – are fulfilling a vital role ensuring people receive accurate and timely health advice from the NHS and Public Health England during the pandemic, so everyone understands how important it is to follow the advice to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives.
“We cannot take that for granted on social media. Here it is much easier for fake news, hoax theories and pseudo-science to spread which will harm not help people if they take it seriously. We need people to follow the instructions of medical experts so that we can reduce the infection rate and protect the NHS. Misleading information about coronavirus online, whether maliciously intended or not, could cost lives. “
Dowden confirmed that, in light of the spread of misinformation, DCMS has pulled together a unit of experts across government and in the tech sector to lead the fight against fake news with the unit having trebled its size in the last week as the battle intensifies. The Department also confirmed today that its ‘Don’t Feed the Beast’ public information campaign will be relaunched in order to tackle the spread of misinformation on social media platforms.
He added: “We’re working around the clock with Whitehall departments, the social media platforms, and disinformation specialists in academia to build up a full picture of inaccurate news stories and posts circulating online. This helps inform the government’s response at every level, with us regularly updating the Prime Minister and COBRA on social media trends and risks.”
Misinformation being shared on social media included falsehoods around gargling warm water to tackle the virus and footage of the 2011 London riots as if it were taking place today, he said.
He added: “Up to 70 incidents a week of false narratives are being identified and resolved through the government’s own Rapid Response Unit which issues swift rebuttals. And we’re working closely with social media platforms to help them identify and take action to remove dangerous, incorrect claims about the virus, plus suspend the accounts of people who wilfully post and share it.
Dowden confirmed that tackling the spread of misinformation on private messaging apps, such as WhatsApp or iMessage, was a harder challenge. The government continued to look at tech-based solutions to help communicate accurate information, such as the NHS Chatbot WhatsApp launched last week.
While social media companies needed to do more to tackle the spread of misinformation on its sites, the public also had a role to play in helping not to spread misinformation, Dowden urged.
He said: “I would like to see the tech companies do much more to explore how they can further limit the spread of misinformation on their platforms. I’ll be speaking to the major social media companies this week about their efforts to date, assess the progress made and discuss other potential measures we can put in place.
“As individuals, we all have a role to play, too. Before reading, sharing or forwarding a post, we should think about where the information comes from. Is it a reputable site or from somewhere obscure we’ve never heard of? What motive might be behind it? Is it worth checking it against reliable sources of information, such as gov.uk? You may well find that it has already been debunked by a trusted fact-checker such as Full Fact.
“When we see people posting things that we know contradicts guidance from authoritative public health sources, the best thing to do is not to share or comment on them. Some of this content is intentionally invented to provoke a reaction. Even if it is your natural instinct to call it out, sharing it – even in an outraged way – just spreads it.”
The government also announced over the weekend that it had struck a deal with telecommunications companies to ensure that data allowance caps on current fixed broadband services will be removed to help vulnerable people stay connected through the pandemic.
Praise for newspaper home deliveries
The role of the media has also been recognised by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson who has highlighted the importance of newspaper home delivery during the outbreak.
He said: “It is really important that people are able to access local news to gain an understanding of what is going on in their area.
“Local newspapers are absolutely vital when it comes to reporting on some of the key messages that we all need to take on board so we can tackle this virus.
“I hope some clarity and guidance can be issued to make sure it is understood that newspaper deliveries can – and should – still take place.
“In order to stop the spread of this virus, what we all want to see is less people leaving the house and having to go to the shops. Home deliveries are an important part of this battle to keep people self-isolating.”