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Social media misinformation is a threat to our health and democracy

June 21, 2020 4:20 PM
By Bryan Lewis

The coronavirus pandemic has seen waves of misinformation reach every part of the globe - and the UK is no exception.

Social media

Voters are concerned about false information online. A survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggest that, in the UK, 63% of people are concerned about what is real and fake on the internet when it comes to news.

In a Reuters' Digital News Report's survey, 37% of respondents said they had come across a lot or a great deal of misinformation about Covid-19 on social media and 32% said the same of messaging apps, like Whatsapp.

Twice as many people are concerned about social media (40%) as a source of misinformation compared with news websites (20%). That's partly because conspiracy theories linking the virus to 5G networks have been widely spread on social media.

The recent fracas over Twitter 'flagging' tweets from Donald Trump as potentially harmful/misleading can be contrasted to Facebook's decision not to put a health warning on identical posts.

Twitter no longer accepts paid for political ads but Facebook does. Facebook has just announced a number of changes to increase online transparency- showing who paid for a political ad but so long as the cash flows in they are not bothered by lies, misinformation or offense. Former Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, is now a Facebook vice president. He was interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme where it became clear that, far from doing more good by being on the inside, Clegg has traded his liberal credentials for Zuckerberg's dollars.

There is a need to increase transparency and accountability among political campaigners - not least setting out who is paying to spread their message online. It remains a glaring loophole that printed campaign materials must say who's funding it, but not material spread online.

The concern remains that Facebook is still able to self-regulate, which is why analogue electoral laws in the US, UK and the EU need to be updated for the digital age.

The current free-for-all cannot continue. In a pandemic, it is putting lives at grave risk. During an election, it puts the integrity of our democracy at grave risk, too.