The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared that there’s an “infodemic” of disinformation about coronavirus spreading rapidly around the world. We have all seen examples of this kind of content being shared in our friends and family networks on social media and through messaging apps. Examples include claims that drinking warm water every 15 minutes can stop you getting the virus, or that taking ibuprofen tablets accelerates the illness’s progress.
People have received texts, supposedly from the government, telling them they’ve been fined for making an unnecessary journey from their home, and messages have circulated that every night military helicopters will spray our cities with disinfectant to kill Covid-19. Fake news stories have also claimed that the virus was not caused by the mutation of an animal-borne disease that started infecting humans in China, but instead was created by Bill Gates, 5G wireless signals, or the American government.
Once again, the agents of disinformation are hijacking the algorithms of social media to sow chaos and confusion. Some are doing so to make money, others more maliciously to undermine public trust in our governments and institutions. As the coronavirus lockdowns continue, and the infection rates continue to rise, these problems will only get worse. At a time when people need to be able to rely on accurate public information, this problem is more serious than ever.
Government and public health agencies are fighting hard to try and get the truth out and social media companies say they are acting against the worst forms of disinformation, if they pose a direct threat to the welfare of citizens. But I believe we need to do much more. For too long there has been a casual acceptance of disinformation as a simple by-product of social media. The coronavirus crisis tells us this has to change. That should start with requirements in law for the major social media companies to act against known sources of major and malicious disinformation campaigns. I believe it should also be an offence for someone to knowingly seek to endanger public health by acting in this way.
Yet time is not on our side: we cannot afford just to wait for parliaments to create new laws, which means we all have a part to play in this fight against the coronavirus “infodemic”. As Albert Camus wrote in his novel La Peste “the only means of fighting a plague is common decency”. In this endeavour I have joined forces with Iconic Labs, the team that helped develop the media website Unilad, to create a new service to bolster the truth in the fightback against the virus. This initiative is also being supported by other parliamentarians, academics and anti-disinformation campaigners from around the world.
On March 30, we are launching Infotagion: a free to use, online, independent, fact checking service for coronavirus. Much of the disinformation that exists can be found in private channels like WhatsApp and closed Facebook groups, to which very many people have access but not everyone can see. So, we are asking people to screenshot what appears on those channels that doesn’t look right and send it to us. We will check the facts against independent, trusted and official sources, like public health services and the WHO. If the key claims made within the messages we see are false or can’t be proven, we will warn people not to share them, using a traffic light system. Coronavirus is too important to take risks with unreliable information, and the people who are spreading news about it should be able to back up what they say.
We will also create an online archive so that over time we will be able to keep track of the different forms of disinformation about coronavirus and when they were first reported. By highlighting the worst cases, we hope to spur social media companies to act against them. As we have seen in the past, the public exposure of harmful content is often the most effective way of persuading technology companies to take it down.
Over the last few years, the debate about disinformation has mostly focused on election interference and the threat to democracy from orchestrated campaigns, in particular those backed by foreign states. Now, the coronavirus “infomedic” demonstrates, like the anti-vaccine movement, that online disinformation can cause serious physical harm. While in a free society we respect people’s right to speak their mind, there has always been a crossover between freedom of expression and the negative impact that can have on the lives of others. We cannot leave the policing of that line to the big tech companies: it’s time to call out the agents of disinformation and warn each other about what we’ve seen.