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Misinformation and Disinformation Online.

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 10 December 2020

What recent steps his Department has taken to tackle the proliferation of (a) misinformation and (b) disinformation online. (910124)

The Government take the issue of misinformation and disinformation very seriously, and DCMS is leading work across Government to tackle it. As this can be particularly harmful during the pandemic, we stood up the counter-disinformation unit to bring together cross-Government monitoring and analysis capabilities. We are working closely with social media platforms to help them to identify and remove incorrect claims about the virus and to promote authoritative information.

Online misinformation is a great harm to us all. It can make people refuse life-saving medicines, it can make people believe that the so-called leader of the free world has been cheated out of an election, and in the last of the 16 days of action on gender-based violence against women and girls, it is important to note that 52% of young women and girls have been abused online and that 87% think the problem is getting worse. When will we finally see the online harms Bill, given that the social media and tech companies are doing nowhere near enough to protect individuals and society at large?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight this. We know that the vast majority of misinformation is harmful but legal. It is really important that we develop a comprehensive piece of legislation, working closely with civil society and the tech platforms, so that where disinformation is illegal or encourages illegal behaviours it can be dealt with, and so that we can address false narratives online and try to root out the content that is legal but harmful, particularly to children. With that in mind, we will be publishing the online harms response very shortly, and we plan to bring forward the legislation early next year.

Like many other Members, I have been sharing information about the excellent developments on the vaccines with my constituents on social media, but I have been deeply worried by some of the anti-vax nonsense I have seen in response. What is the Minister’s advice to my constituents when they see this information online? Should they simply report it to the social media companies and expect them to remove it—they have a pretty poor track record of doing that—or is there some way of feeding into the disinformation unit that she has described?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this. Anti-vaccination propaganda can be really harmful and can deter people from getting treatment that could save their life or the life of a loved one. That is why it is really important to bring it to the attention of the social media companies themselves. Last month, my colleague the Secretary of State, alongside the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, met the social media companies, which agreed to reduce the spread of harmful and misleading narratives, particularly around the potential covid-19 vaccine. We are holding them to account for this; it is vital that they get it right and that their work is transparent and effective.