Quality journalism plays ‘critical role’ in tackling misinformation, government confirms

Posted on: October 14, 2020 by Claire Meadows

Quality journalism plays a ‘critical role’ in tackling the spread of misinformation and disinformation online, the government has today acknowledged.

Responding to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee’s report into Misinformation in the Covid-19 Infodemic, the government said that it recognised the vital role of newspapers in supporting communities and isolated individuals and reiterated its intention to protect freedom of expression amid taking action to address misinformation online. 

It said: “It has been an absolute priority to ensure we do all we can as a Government to support news publishers at this time of financial instability. Measures to support news publishers include bringing forward the commencement of zero-rating of VAT on e-newspapers in order to bring savings to readers during the coronavirus outbreak, as well as to support publishers.

“Whilst the Government is taking action to address false narratives online, we will ensure that freedom of expression in the UK is protected and enhanced online.”

The government’s official response, published today ahead of Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s appearance in front of the DCMS Select Committee to provide an update on his department’s work, acknowledged that the pandemic had increased reliance on the internet and highlighted the ‘importance of introducing a new regulatory regime to enable us to protect users and adapt to new challenges online’. The response confirmed that legislation intended to tackle online harms would not be ready until next year with the government’s full consultation response to the Online Harms White Paper expected later this year.

The Society of Editors has supported calls to tackle illegal content online but has said that there is a specific exemption set out in any online harms legislation for mainstream media content. It has previously also called on government officials and the public to promote the work of the mainstream media in an effort to counter the spread of misinformation and disinformation online. 

The committee’s report had also warned that alongside the urgent need to tackle illegal and harmful content online, more needed to be done to support the established news media whose trusted journalism was under threat from the breadth of misinformation and disinformation available on digital platforms.  The committee had warned that while tech companies rely on quality journalism to provide authoritative information, features of the digital advertising market controlled by companies such as Facebook and Google, increasingly undermine the ability of newspapers and others to produce quality content. The committee had also called on the government to encourage tech companies to elevate authoritative journalistic sources to combat the spread of misinformation.

The Government acknowledged that social media firms have “further work to do to tackle misinformation and disinformation on their platforms” and quality journalism has a vital role to play in helping to tackle this phenomenon online, it added.

It said: “The Government agrees that a free and independent media are essential qualities of any functioning democracy and quality journalism plays a critical role in tackling misinformation and disinformation. Platforms’ efforts to help users identify the reliability and trustworthiness of sources can allow these sources to reach audiences more easily and may continue and expand as a result of the proposals in the Online Harms White Paper.”

Responding to the government’s response, DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP said that the delay in bringing forward legislation on online harms was ‘unjustifiable’.

He added: “The government has accepted the evidence this committee presented to it about the unstoppable spread of online misinformation during the pandemic and the harms involved. However,  instead of acting with urgency, we’re now being told we have to wait until next year to see the legislation to tackle online harms legislation being published.

“People need that protection against online harms now and further delay is unjustifiable.

“We’re also disappointed that the government has failed to take this opportunity to identify the body that will be carrying out the crucial role of online harms regulator. We warned in our Report that a continued delay would bring into question the seriousness of intention in this area but once again we’re told we have to wait.”