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Social Media: Fake News

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 29 April 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to address fake news about COVID-19 on social media.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

I thank the noble Baroness for her very timely and important Question. Accurate information is more important than ever and misleading information about coronavirus, whether maliciously intended or not, could cost lives. The Government are working around the clock to build a comprehensive picture of false stories and posts about the virus. We are responding directly to false narratives, working closely with social media platforms to help them remove dangerous, incorrect claims about the virus, and are promoting the steps that everyone can take to reduce the spread of misinformation.

I thank the Minister for her response. I completely agree with her. Disinformation and conspiracy theories flooding the internet seriously undermine the efforts of those working hard to keep us safe. The Government set up the Rapid Response Unit to work with social media companies to take action and combat fake news, yet we have heard very little about its work and received no detail on what its achievements or actions are. When will the Government make a statement on the work of the Rapid Response Unit? What assessment have they made of the effectiveness of the actions of the social media platforms so far?

The noble Baroness is right that we set up the counter-disinformation unit at the beginning of March, bringing in expertise from across Whitehall. When asked a similar question the other day, my right honourable friend the Secretary of the State assured colleagues that, when time allows, there will be a Written Ministerial Statement to reflect on a number of issues, including this one. However, our real focus at the moment is to act as expeditiously as possible when any misinformation or disinformation content gains traction.

My Lords, I refer the House to my interests in the register. Children and young people are the demographic most likely to access their news online and least likely to have the funds to get behind a paywall, and they have little life experience from which to identify misinformation. A recent Pew report shows that those who believe in conspiracy theories are the least likely to observe social distancing rules. At a time when children are entirely dependent on online communication—we have increasing evidence that they are experiencing a range of harms, including misinformation—what justification do the Government have for the recent reports of a delay to the long-promised online harms Bill? In answering, can the Minister say when we can expect this Bill in the House?

The noble Baroness is right to raise the issues of risks posed to children and young people online. My honourable friend the Minister for Digital and Culture recently met a number of child safety organisations in this regard. We are continuing work in partnership with the Home Office to agree our final position on the regulatory framework as quickly as possible. Obviously, a media literacy strategy will form part of that.

My Lords, Covid-19 exposes the pernicious power of fake news; it can be a matter of life and death. Will my noble friend the Minister commit to looking at all elements of fake news, not least getting the harms White Paper in this House, looking at its impact on our democracy and ensuring that a message goes out from the Government to all sections of society that we should always go the extra click to ensure the veracity of information?

I am happy to agree with the points raised by my noble friend. There is an irony at the moment, when our thirst for quick news feels so urgent, that the time we need to take to get accurate news is even more important. I commend those journalists who are playing such an important part in achieving that.

Does the Minister agree that, if anything, there should be an acceleration to pass laws to make social media companies more accountable, with a duty of care and the use of criminal sanctions? Unfortunately, last week the Secretary of State appeared to be slamming on the brakes, asking them instead to beef up their systems and, in his words,

“drive reliance on reliable narratives”.

Any delay to online harms laws lets social media companies off the hook at this critical moment. Will the Minister agree to an urgent meeting with Peers to provide detail on the progress of this legislation?

I will be delighted to meet noble Lords to discuss this. I stress that the Government have been absolutely clear that we want the social media companies, which have unparalleled engineering capacity, to be even more proactive in addressing this very urgent threat.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a particular responsibility on role models to ensure that fake news is not propagated? Will she single out in particular, as I do, the broadcaster and television presenter Eamonn Holmes, who—perhaps unwittingly, but none the less effectively—cast doubt on the causes of Covid-19 and the link between 5G masts and the spreading of the disease? Is that not something that needs to be condemned? Also, should not the activities of the anti-vaxxers, who are also propagating fake news—I am thinking here of Novak Djokovic, who is giving credence to the anti-vaxxer movement—be criticised and rebutted whenever they make these misleading and dangerous statements?

The noble Lord is right that when celebrities intentionally or inadvertently spread misinformation, this can fan the flames and increase risks around coronavirus. I reiterate the work the Government are doing: our “Don’t feed the beast” campaign, the SHARE checklist we have created and the very clear advice that we should follow public health guidance.

Does my noble friend agree that it is very different when people seek to deliberately spread misinformation, blaming particular minority groups—maybe Jewish people or Muslims—using pernicious false information, graphs and other forms of information? What discussions has she had with the various police authorities in this country and internationally for a co-ordinated attack on this attempt to undermine society from within and to have us start to hate our fellow citizens?

My noble friend makes a very important point. Unfortunately, there have been a number of examples of these pernicious attacks. We are working in a co-ordinated way with Governments around the world, because clearly we need the most collective response possible.

While Rachel Riley is running a brilliant one-woman campaign against fake news, Impress, the regulator of online publications, has an unlimited ability to fine. Does the Minister agree that those powers should now be extended to allow Impress to enforce these fines?

My Lords, I found it slightly difficult to hear the noble Lord. If I may, I will listen again and respond in writing.

My Lords, in the light of the Avaaz report and Ofcom’s latest figures showing the massive extent of Covid disinformation, is not the Government’s approach to social media platforms far too flabby? Should they not be obliging social media platforms to not only provide correct information, but issue warnings and then terminate the accounts of those disseminating misinformation about Covid-19?

We would rebut the allegation that our response has been flabby. This is clearly an incredibly fast-moving situation. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State meets regularly with the social media companies. As I said earlier, we think that there is more that they can do, but they have made some important moves in recent weeks.

My Lords, I am afraid to tell you that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. My apologies to the noble Baronesses, Lady Lane-Fox and Lady Healy of Primrose Hill. We can now come to the third Oral Question.