MPs call for new sanctions for social media firms that ‘monetise misinformation’

Written by John Johnston on 22 July 2020 in News

A parliamentary committee has demanded the creation of a dedicated regulator with the power to levy ‘significant’ financial penalties

Credit: PA

A parliamentary committee has urged the government to appoint a new regulator to tackle the “infodemic” of fake news created during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a new report from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, MPs warned that misinformation and disinformation has been allowed to spread "virulently" because of the government's failure to crack down on fake news.

The warning comes after home secretary Priti Patel announced she was "minded" to broaden the remit of communications watchdog Ofcom to tackle misinformation. But she suggested the new legislation would not be introduced until next year at the earliest.

MPs on the DCMS committee have now hit out at the ongoing lack of regulation, claiming it has led to a surge in misinformation during the coronavirus outbreak, including promoting hoax treatments and attacks on 5G engineers as a result of conspiracies about the technology.

"Early examples of misinformation during the pandemic often misled people about cures or preventative measures to infection," they said. "Some people have mistakenly turned to unproven home remedies, stopped taking ibuprofen and prescribed medicine, or elsewise ingested harmful chemicals such as disinfectant."

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Meanwhile, the group warned that high engagement with conspiracy content had encouraged companies to "monetise misinformation" by promoting the posts across their platforms to boost advertising revenue.

They said: "The current business model not only creates disincentives for tech companies to tackle misinformation, it also allows others to monetise misinformation too."

And the committee hits out at the efforts of tech giants themselves to tackle misinformation, saying that adding warning labels to misinformation had "fallen short" in tackling the issue.

Instead, the DCMS committee said ministers should immediately appoint a regulator and hand them the power to develop new guidelines on disinformation, with powers to issue "significant" fines against firms who fail to implement them.

Julian Knight, chair of the committee, said without the new legislation there would be "no incentive" for firms to crack down on misinformation.

"We are calling on the government to name the regulator now and get on with the 'world-leading' legislation on social media that we've long been promised," he said. "The proliferation of dangerous claims about Covid-19 has been unstoppable. The leaders of social media companies have failed to tackle the infodemic of misinformation.”

Knight added: "Evidence that tech companies were able to benefit from the monetisation of false information and allowed others to do so is shocking. We need robust regulation to hold these companies to account. The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that without due weight of the law, social media companies have no incentive to consider a duty of care to those who use their services."

'Slow to act'
Responding to the report, Liberal Democrat culture spokesperson Daisy Cooper said it was clear the government needed to do more to "stamp out" misinformation online.

She added: "To tackle the invisible algorithms that drive people to extreme content, platforms must not only have the ability to act quickly but there must be a regulator with teeth to step in when platforms are not doing enough."

And Labour's Jo Stevens said the report confirmed that ministers had been "slow to act".

The shadow culture secretary said: “It has been more than 15 months since the promised online harms legislation and the select committee shares our concerns that this long-overdue legislation puts safeguarding profits of the big tech platforms before public safety.”

A DCMS spokesperson said: "We are developing world-leading plans to put a duty of care on online platforms towards their users and will introduce legislation as soon as possible. Since the start of the pandemic, specialist government units have been working around the clock to identify and rebut false information about coronavirus. We are also working closely with social media platforms to help them identify and remove incorrect claims about the virus that could endanger people's health."


About the author

John Johnston is a political reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @johnjohnstonmi.

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