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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Peers urge hefty fines for social media disinformation

Members of the House of Lords are urging the passing of legislation that will implement new rules for social media companies, and threaten fat fines in the case of inaction on disinformation.

A House of Lords committee on democracy and digital technologies, chaired by Labour peer David Puttnam, is insisting that the government’s online harms legislation that has been in the works since early 2019, is pushed through immediately.

Among the recommendations of the online harms report is that Ofcom take on a watchdog role for the internet and punish any wayward social media company with fines of up to 4 per cent of their turnover, or even by blocking the sites of companies that flout the rules.

The group of peers argue that misinformation and disinformation spread during the coronavirus pandemic has helped undermine official narratives about the virus. “Conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the virus alongside false cures are encouraging people to damage their own health and endanger those around them,” Puttnam wrote in an op-ed for NS Tech.

Puttnam argues that beyond health information, disinformation is also affecting democratic institutions. “This misinformation flows through the same networks that spread lies during elections and undermine the public’s faith in democracy,” he writes.

The Lords committee argues for recalibrating the algorithms which promote content on social media sites, as well as new legislation governing social media advertising.

Puttnam argues that platforms need to be a lot more transparent about what content they take down and why. Such a development would be welcome to the likes of human rights activists hailing from Tunisia, Syria, and Palestine, who used Facebook to broadcast human rights abuses but were unceremoniously banned from the platform without receiving any explanation.

The Online Harms Bill has been debated in a series of parliamentary committee meetings in which some MPs display a galling lack of understanding of social media and the internet (calling for the de facto end to anonymity online, online criticism of government strategy, and encryption).

An alternative perspective to the Lords committee might come to the conclusion that it is in fact a lack of trust in the government and mainstream press which has sowed the seeds of disinformation, rather than the other way around. Many MPs and peers fail to grasp that the people spreading ‘alternative’ theories are well aware of the official line – they just decide not to buy it. If that’s the case, removing ‘disinformation’ from the internet could merely entrench distrust of the institutions desperate to claw back credibility.

Online disinformation has led to a crisis of trust – governments must act now to rein in the platform giants