Sharing fake news during coronavirus outbreak should become an offence, says Tory MP

Coronavirus warnings on signs in Glasgow as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of

Coronavirus warnings on signs in Glasgow as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

A Tory MP has said that sharing disinformation during the coronavirus outbreak should be an offence.

Tory MP Damian Collins, former chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media And Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, called for knowingly peddling misinformation related to the Covid-19 outbreak to be made an offence.

'Lots of the debate around fake news has been in the political context, around election campaigning, but here we are seeing it in a public health crisis,' he told the PA news agency.

'In some ways, this is the first public health crisis in the age of social media disinformation, and therefore it requires a different response.'

The Conservative MP said it should be an offence for someone to 'knowingly and maliciously spread disinformation' that could be harmful to public health.

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'I think that should be an offence to do that, and should be an offence for social media companies not to take that content down,' he said.

He has partnered with Infotagion, a free-to-access website, which allows members of the public to post screenshots of coronavirus-related information they have received online.

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A team organised by Collins - who led the government investigation into disinformation and fake news - will check what users submit against official sources and give traffic light answers on whether it is true or false.

The service, in collaboration with media and technology company Iconic Labs, will provide users with links to trusted information sources, such as the World Health Organisation, or official government guidance.

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Collins told PA: 'I think part of the confusion comes because there is so much happening every day - new restrictions, new information.

'The information contagion around Covid-19 is so dangerous, because there is so much that people don't know and so much happening all the time, that it is very easy for false rumours to take hold and spread.

'Therefore, we need to be able to challenge these publicly as they happen, and get people more used to questioning what they see and going to a service where they can actually check whether that message is true.'

He said the service will highlight any false information and say where it was received, while alerting social media platforms there is content that should be removed.

It comes as the government launched a separate crackdown on Covid-19 related fake news.

The Rapid Response Unit, operating from within the Cabinet Office and No 10, coordinates with departments across Whitehall to deploy the appropriate response when misinformation is identified online.

Up to 70 incidents a week, often false narratives containing multiple misleading claims, are being identified and resolved, the government said.

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