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Coronavirus: Legislation needed to stop ‘virulent’ spread of COVID disinformation | UK News

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Misinformation about coronavirus has been allowed to spread “virulently” because there is still no legislation to regulate it, according to a report.

The study, published by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, comes amid claims such as cocaine being a cure for the virus and 5G networks helping to spread the disease.

Other damaging misinformation includes false “remedies”, including a message forwarded many times about a soup made from herbs that could prevent COVID-19.

Chair of the committee, Julian Knight, told Sky News: “We’ve heard from healthcare workers on the front line who have reported quite serious incidents of people who’ve ingested bleach and other chemicals.

“We need a regulator that’s able to effectively go to the social media companies…and be able to say to them: ‘If you do not follow correct procedures if you’re failing in your duty of care to your customers I’m afraid you’re going to face fines or even more serious sanctions’.”

The false claims linking 5G networks to the virus led to several arson attacks on phone masts and some engineers became targets for abuse.

Dave Snowdon works for Openreach in Birmingham and first heard about the conspiracy theory when two men approached his van.

“I wound the window down and immediately they said: ‘Are you working on the 5G network? You aren’t anything to do with 5G masts?’.

“And then he said: ‘You best not be or there’ll be trouble’ in strong language, kicked the door of the van, and then knocked the mirror out of the side door, got in the car and sped off.”

Dave Snowdon works for OpenReach in Birmingham
Image:
Dave Snowdon works for Openreach in Birmingham

The director of the Oxford Internet Institute, Professor Philip Howard, contributed to the committee’s report and said most misinformation about COVID-19 came from one of two sources.

He told Sky News: “The first is state-backed media agencies in Russia and China and their goal is just to present misinformation about how their governments are dealing with the crisis and how democracies are weak and unable to adequately protect their citizens.

“The second source is just people who want to make money.”

MPs have called on the government to publish draft legislation on social media in the autumn.

Mr Knight said: “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.”

The committee has also said the final decision on a regulator should be made.

Earlier this year the government said it was “minded” to appoint Ofcom but had not yet confirmed that decision.

Jo Stevens, Labour’s shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary, said: “The pandemic has reinforced just how dangerous misinformation can be – with serious consequences for people’s health. But despite consecutive Conservative governments knowing about the problem of misinformation for years, this report lays bare that once again the government has been slow to act.

“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.”

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