The explosion of armchair virologists during the coronavirus pandemic has once again put the spotlight back on the social media giants. Half truths, outright lies and disingenuous comparisons sweeping through social media platforms are fuelling fear and panic. And it’s big business. The threat of fake news was outlined again this week with the latest figures from the Global Disinformation Index showing that Europe’s leading disinformation websites are continuing to cash in on fake news on Google (including peddling falsehoods on coronavirus) to the tune of £63m ($75m) a year.
Yet these tech behemoths are still allowed to act with impunity. Want an anonymous Twitter profile to spread bile and lies? No problem. That we are still having a debate about anonymous profiling beggars belief.
Similarly, want to set up a fake Facebook account? Done. At the very least, Facebook needs to step up the number of moderators online as we go through unprecedented times where accuracy is at a premium. If there was ever a time for Facebook and others to use their huge power and reach for the greater good it is now. It is time for them to atone for their previous reckless behaviour.
Sadly the problem doesn’t end there. Dozens, if not hundreds, of high-profile figures have overnight begun masquerading as health experts offering unwanted advice. Spanish footballer Cesc Fabregas, for example, has taken to questioning the British Government’s expert-led coronavirus policymaking on keeping schools open. To coin a phrase: he should do his talking on the pitch.
And then there’s Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr. Carole should, of course, know better, but she has used the crisis to reignite her very personal long-standing feud with Vote Leave. In a bemusing Twitter thread, Cadwalladr questioned whether the Government could be trusted to follow the advice of public servants, while suggesting that policy is being dictated by ‘Vote Leave data bros’ who ‘rigged’ an election.
Even the leader of the opposition has been guilty of manipulating stories to invoke populist outrage. Jeremy Corbyn took to Twitter to accuse private healthcare companies of profiting from the pandemic, after the NHS reportedly agreed to rent 8,000 beds for a £2.4 million fee. Of course, this figure presumably covers the cost of the doctors, nurses, cleaners and cooks needed to cater for each bed, but this doesn’t seem to matter when you can further your own ideological agenda. ‘The beds should be used by the NHS. Rent-free,’ he wrote.
All of this reinforces the importance of the mainstream press (of which we have the best in the world) as people search around for sober, factual reporting. Google should continue to prioritise and step up efforts to make sure their content appears on the first page of the search engine.
It’s worth noting that during this crisis not everything is reportable and the experts advising Government might temper their advice if they worry it won’t be kept under lock and key and leaked. The Government is operating under extreme pressure. It doesn’t need armchair experts or social media crackpots spreading misinformation in its wake.
Giles Kenningham is a former Number Ten adviser and founder of Trafalgar Strategy
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