The Digital Secretary has urged social media users to do their bit in tackling coronavirus-related “fake news” and backed a five-step plan to fight misinformation.
Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden said the public must “remain absolutely vigilant to inaccurate stories” and has recommended online users adopt advice issued by the Centre for Countering Digital (CCDH), a non-profit group researching online hate, in the battle against those peddling falsehoods.
Conspiracy theories being shared on social media networks include claims Covid-19 is a biological weapon released by China, while others pin the blame for the deadly virus’ inception on 5G technology masts, according to CCDH findings.
Another concept being pushed online includes that the virus is an illness released to create a so-called “new world order” by wrecking the global economy.
Secretary of State Mr Dowden told the PA news agency: “We must remain absolutely vigilant to inaccurate stories about coronavirus being spread online.
“The Government is monitoring the extent and impact of misinformation and will not hesitate to intervene to help the public follow accurate information and guidance.
“I urge the industry to play their part too and act fast to stem the spread of misinformation on coronavirus on their platforms.
“But we can also all take action now by following these guidelines from the CCDH to tackle fake news in our everyday online lives.”
CCDH, as part of its ‘Don’t spread the virus’ campaign, recommends social media users do not share or reply to misinformation, that they block users spreading it and report them to social media platforms and group admins.
They are urged to privately message those known to them who are spreading incorrect information and ask them to curtail their behaviour.
People are also being encouraged to “drown out” the trolls by sharing official medical advice produced by the NHS and UK Government, as well as promoting good causes.
The UK Government has established a WhatsApp bot group, which the public can join and ask questions in order to receive official guidance on coronavirus.
And social media giants such as Facebook and Google are using their platforms to push approved Covid-19 guidance.
Facebook said more than one billion of its users had been directed to official health guidance, including that issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The UK entered a lockdown of at least three weeks on Monday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the Government had banned people leaving the house except to exercise, shop for food, seek medical care or go to a job that cannot be done from home.
Pubs, restaurants and all shops not deemed essential have been closed, meaning people are spending more time on social media while stuck indoors.
Julian Knight MP, chairman for the Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee, on Thursday said tech giants were “morally responsible” for the information on their platforms and should face penalties if they do not tackle false rumours about the disease.
His comments came as the committee he leads asked the public to submit evidence of false Covid-19 information circulated in their social networks.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of CCDH, said it was important to avoid attempting to “call out” misinformation via social media or else there was a risk it could be spread further.
Social media platforms have tended to promote information that is being shared widely across the timelines of their millions of members, even if it is incorrect.
The CCDH’s advice on not amplifying fake news is based on its report ‘Don’t feed the trolls’, which was published last year and backed by popular social media users including ex-England footballer Gary Lineker and Countdown’s Rachel Riley.
Mr Ahmed told PA: “Social media is currently awash with conspiracy theories, fake news, and incorrect medical advice about coronavirus and Covid-19.
“Some of it is produced by extremists seeking to undermine faith in government and experts, some by grifters seeking to sell false cures and some are just sadly misinformed and think they’re doing the right thing by spreading the wrong advice.
“When people see something they recognise as misinformation, it’s natural for them to want to call it out, but on social media this instinct only helps to spread that misinformation further.
“The nation has shown great resolve and made sacrifices to stop the spread of coronavirus.
“We need to show similar resolve to stop inadvertently amplifying misinformation, which threatens to undermine all our efforts, and instead amplify official advice from the NHS or UK Government.”