Thursday 26 March 2020 12:38 pm

MPs call for public help amid crackdown on coronavirus misinformation

MPs have urged members of the public to flag up examples of fake news on social media as authorities struggle to stamp out misleading information about coronavirus.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee today warned that much of the misinformation relating to the pandemic was being spread through private channels, meaning the onus was on friends and family to report it.

The committee said it would haul in social media firms to answer questions about how they were cracking down on fake news, while examples sent in by the public would be considered as evidence to put before tech firms and the government.

It comes as authorities scramble to stamp out misleading information spread online either misadvertently or with malicious intent.

Numerous conspiracy theories have emerged since the start of the outbreak, including claims that the virus is linked to 5G and incorrect reports that the army had been drafted in to enforce a military lockdown.

Much of the misinformation has been spread over Whatsapp, which uses end-to-end encryption and has roughly 2bn users worldwide.

Whatsapp usage has jumped 40 per cent since the pandemic started, according to figures released yesterday by Kantar.

Last week the World Health Organization launched a Whatsapp chatbot to provide accurate information on the crisis, while the government rolled out a similar service yesterday.

Facebook, which owns Whatsapp and Instagram, has introduced a string of new measures to tackle fake news, including expanding its third-party fact checking service with the addition of Reuters.

Twitter has also pledged to remove any posts that contain misleading information about the pandemic.

DCMS committee chair Julian Knight said there had been some “shocking” examples of misinformation related to the virus in recent weeks.

“We will call in social media companies as soon as the House returns to explain what they’re doing to deal with harmful content like this to help give people the reassurances they need at this difficult time,” he said.

“Tech giants who allow this to proliferate on their platforms are morally responsible for tackling disinformation and should face penalties if they don’t.”