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Covid-19: Disinformation

Volume 675: debated on Monday 27 April 2020

I welcome the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) to her position as shadow Secretary of State; she will participate virtually later. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who is not present because she has temporarily returned to the nursing profession to help to combat covid-19—she would normally be our Bench Whip.

Accurate, trusted information is more important than ever in this public health crisis. The cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation unit is providing a comprehensive picture of disinformation and misinformation on coronavirus. I have engaged personally with social media platforms, which have made technical and policy changes to stem the spread of misinformation. For example, YouTube now removes content that denies the existence of covid-19 or contradicts NHS information, and WhatsApp has reduced the number of contacts to whom a message can be forwarded.

Sadly, public trust in the media is collapsing, as many elements are seemingly more interested in catching politicians out and creating a story than reporting the news. What further work can my right hon. Friend and his Department do with the media to provide useful and accurate information to the public about support for vulnerable people and struggling businesses as we continue to tackle this crisis?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. At this time we need trusted information more than ever. We all know that the media do not always get it right, but I pay tribute to the work of the news industry in providing much-needed information. We see that work in our national and local newspapers and in our local commercial and BBC radio stations, which bring together communities and provide reliable news. It is for that reason that we have designated people who work in the production and distribution of news as key workers. We are also addressing the keyword blocking that undermines the advertising revenue on which the sector so relies, as well as ensuring that the Government directly communicate their messages through advertising.

Many social media platforms are being used to spread disinformation and vitriol, which is particularly dangerous to communities and individuals at this time. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the industry’s initiatives to warn people about misinformation and its willingness to remove destabilising and abusive messages?

Most platforms have taken positive steps to curtail the spread of harmful and misleading narratives related to covid-19. However, when I spoke to the platforms earlier this month I made it clear that they need to explore how they can further limit the spread of misinformation. In my meeting, the platforms agreed to exactly the sort of initiatives that my right hon. Friend correctly mentions, and also to increase messaging to users about how to identify and respond to misinformation. Since then, Facebook has announced that it will show in its newsfeed the messages to anyone who has interacted with a post that has since been removed. That sort of work needs to continue at pace across all platforms.

Some of the most pernicious pieces of disinformation, such as on 5G, and—let us be frank—the lie about the Government’s fake NHS accounts, have been amplified by blue-tick verified users on Twitter. Will the Secretary of State join me in calling on Twitter to be much more robust and to remove verified status from even prominent users should they be found spreading fake news and disinformation?

My hon. Friend is, as always, absolutely right. At the roundtable I was clear that those platforms need to go further and faster to drown out disinformation and to help to spread vital public health messaging to stay at home. I have encouraged Twitter, and all platforms, to explore all the ways they can further limit the misinformation on them. That clearly means enforcing their own rules, which of course Twitter can do by removing verified status. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall watch his Select Committee discussion with the platforms with great interest.