Experts Call for Online Fake News to Be Addressed as #COVID19 Vaccine Emerges

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There needs to be better steps taken by politicians and social media platforms to deal with fake news, especially as the COVID-19 vaccine is created.

Speaking during the Westminster Forum Conference on tackling fake news and online misinformation, event chair Khalid Mahmood MP, shadow defense minister for procurement, said, as we have seen throughout the pandemic, certain misinformation has been passed around and it is effective in getting to people. “That is just in terms of the pandemic that we are seeing at the moment,” he added, pointing out that fake news is published about politicians too.

He said an issue is how responsibility “is totally negated from platforms where someone can put whatever they want and move forward” and trying to trace that back and address that is becoming increasingly difficult as platforms take time to deal with it.

Admitting that this is a very difficult issue to deal with, he said we need to look at some sort of level footing on this, before it is out of control.

Commenting on the role of platform providers, Katie O’Donovan, head of public policy at Google UK, said there is a challenge around freedom of speech where the meaning around the words can vary, depending on how things are said.

She said: “So you cannot regulate words and sentences, you have to understand the context of how they were made, and ask what is the context and hyperbole and is it a threat made to an individual or a group of people?”  

Asked by Infosecurity if social media platforms are doing enough to prevent fake news whilst enabling free speech, O’Donovan said there is a need for more legislation and regulation. She argued that government is doing a good job on addressing a broad range of harms, whilst offering the opportunity to engage and to “have a vibrant online debate.” However, platforms have a responsibility not to wait for that regulation, and over the years, that has grown very steadily.

Michael Wendling, editor of the Trending and Anti-Disinformation Unit at BBC News, said there is going to be a massive wave of vaccine disinformation, which is ramping up now, and as the vaccine becomes available for COVID-19 “that will make what happened over the 5G masts look like a minor skirmish.” He said if measures by platforms are effective, there will be a larger take up of the vaccine, and if not, there will be less of a take up and the pandemic may continue.

Also speaking was Oscar Tapp-Scotting, deputy director for security and international at DCMS, who confirmed it has been working with platforms to address disinformation and has seen platforms take steps to reduce “misleading narratives.”

He said: “Each of the platforms is different; each has a different user base and provides information in different ways, so how they tackle this will vary by platform.” He also said that in a recent meeting with social media platforms, they would agree to work with healthcare organizations to publish correct information, so users have the ability to make the right choice.

Mahmood said there is a need for politicians to look at social media and how it deals with fake news, “and this has to be the way for all of us in how we deal with fake news, as ultimately there has to be some sort of responsibility between both us and the platforms and how we get the motion across and how we get them to work together.”

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