Most citizens back government action on spread of social-media disinformation

Written by Matt Honeycombe-Foster on 11 May 2020 in News

Study commissioned by Open Knowledge Foundation finds support for tougher measures

A majority of Brits would back tough new curbs on social media giants amid a surge of “misleading” information on the coronavirus pandemic, new polling suggests.

A study for the Open Knowledge Foundation found that 55% of the public believe ministers “should impose compulsory action on social media sites to prevent the spread of disinformation”.

Downing Street last month hit out at a "crazed conspiracy theory" being shared online that linked the coronavirus with the development of 5G mobile technology, while culture secretary Oliver Dowden has already held talks with social media firms telling them to do more to tackle false claims.

The new poll also shows that a third of the public believe sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter should take voluntary steps to combat the spread of misleading content – while just 7% believe nno action needs to be taken.

Just over half 51% of those asked say they have seen “false or misleading” information about the coronavirus pandemic online, including discredited medical claims and debunked stories about a link between Covid-19 and the high-speed mobile network.

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The Survation study comes amid concern from MPs about the spread of Covid-19 disinformation, with the chair of the Commons digital committee, Julian Knight, this week accusing Google, Facebook and Instagram of a “disregard for the important process of scrutiny“ following a stormy committee session on the steps they are taking to rein in fake news.

Facebook has begun notifying users when they share posts containing “harmful” Covid-19 misinformation, with fact-checkers used to flag “false claims or conspiracy theories” for removal.

Meanwhile, Twitter has begun pointing users to official channels such as the World Health Organization when they search for posts on the virus.

Knight told PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome: “This poll doesn’t surprise me. I think that many people view social media companies as too powerful and unaccountable. This impression wasn't helped by their lamentable performance in front of the DCMS select committee where they refused to answer the most basic questions concerning their collective response to disinformation around Covid-19.”

Liberal Democrat digital spokesperson Daisy Cooper said: “The spread of fake news, like global pandemics, is a 21st-century problem that needs 21st-century solutions. The government must ensure that the public have access to trusted news, whether that’s by backing public service broadcasting, investing in digital education or requiring social media companies to quickly remove content designed to mislead the public – wherever it comes from.”

The poll also found strong support for laws to curb the use of micro-targeting by tech platforms.

Micro-targeting sees personal data used to aim adverts, messages and services at highly-specific groups of people, a move that makes social media platforms particularly lucrative compared to other advertising alternatives.

But the use of such methods in political campaigning has been hotly debated in recent years, with Facebook last year batting away calls ahead of the UK election to tighten up its own policies on targeted ads.

The study found that 43% would back ministers imposing compulsory action on internet platforms to restrict micro-targeting, while just under a third (32%) said they would support voluntary curbs.

Catherine Stihler, chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation, told PoliticsHome: “The spread of fake news and disinformation on internet platforms has been ignored for too long, and now it is causing major concern during a global health emergency. It is sadly not surprising, and yet deeply worrying, that a majority of people in the UK have seen COVID-19 related information they believe to be false.”

"Many people view social media companies as too powerful and unaccountable. This impression wasn't helped by their lamentable performance in front of the DCMS select committee where they refused to answer the most basic questions concerning their collective response to disinformation around Covid-19."
DCMS committee chair Julian Knight

She added: “Tech giants have a responsibility to increase transparency and work closely with fact-checkers, but voluntary action is never going to be enough by itself. It’s encouraging that a majority of people in the UK want the UK government to take action against social media platforms to prevent the spread of fake news."

A government spokesperson said: "The spread of false information, which deliberately links baseless conspiracies with Covid-19, is a menace. We are working closely with social media platforms to help them identify and remove incorrect claims and promote authoritative sources of information." 

Whitehall sources meanwhile said social media platforms were making "good steps" following the last meeting between the culture secretary and representatives in April, with the Cabinet minister pressing them for more information on their plans to tackle disinformation.

"This will further improve our understanding of the issues and the speed with which they can be addressed as well as making it harder for misinformation to spread," the source said.


About the author

Matt Honeycombe-Foster is acting editor of PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @matt_hfoster.


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