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Why the Government MUST set up a watchdog for social media – or dangerous conspiracy theories will spread

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LIVES are being put at risk by conspiracy theories pumped out by unregulated social media platforms, a new study has revealed.

A research team from King’s College London found that people who rely on sites such as Facebook and YouTube for information on coronavirus are more likely to break lockdown.

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Social media posts such as this one pump out anti-vaccination messages

They also discovered that more than one in 20 believe Covid-19 symptoms are connected to 5G network radiation – a false online conspiracy theory that has led to mobile masts being attacked and engineers targeted across the country during lockdown.

Here, one of the team of experts who worked on the study sets out the evidence that argues the case for greater social media regulation.


WHEN an interview with professional conspiracy theorist David Icke spouting lies about coronavirus was broadcast on the London Live TV channel it was quite rightly censured.

The tiny station’s 80,000 viewers listened to Icke make the bizarre and dangerous claims that the pandemic was a hoax to purposefully crash the world economy.

Media regulator Ofcom found the broadcast had the “potential to cause significant harm to viewers”.

Yet six million had viewed Icke’s interview on YouTube (it was taken down later) and the platform faced no regulatory issues whatsoever.

That is because social media platforms do not regard themselves as publishers but rather as communications networks.

I think they are wrong and should be regulated just like TV stations and newspapers such as The Sun are.

Along with colleagues at King’s College, I have been studying conspiracy theories on social media platforms during the pandemic lockdown.

YouTube

Professional conspiracy theorist David Icke being interviewed on YouTube[/caption]

CNN / Twitter

Some on social media push the theory that Bill Gates created the pandemic [/caption]

Crazy claims

In three surveys conducted in April and May, we found in all of them that people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to be getting their information from social media and less likely to be following lockdown.

Some people are using social media to push the theory that Bill Gates created the pandemic in order to force people to be vaccinated against their will. Vaccines save lives, and this sort of nonsense puts lives at risk.

Telecom masts were vandalised after baseless conspiracy theories that coronavirus was caused by 5G appeared on Facebook and other sites.

Telecom staff — who are key workers — have been abused and even assaulted because the attackers have been taught on social media that they are the enemy.

Our research isn’t the first time a link has been made between people believing in internet conspiracy theories and then failing to follow public health advice.

Earlier studies have shown that people who believe these fake claims about vaccines are less likely to vaccinate their children.

And people who believe conspiracy theories about Aids are less likely to use condoms.

With so much damage being done by these crazy claims, I believe the Government now has to recognise social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube as publishers.

Social media firms will insist they are not, but they make decisions on what can be published on their platforms and what can’t be.

An analogy I would make is that if I write a letter to The Sun and I made irresponsible claims in that letter, The Sun would be under no obligation to publish it.

The paper gets “green ink” letters all the time and chooses not to print them.

In the same way, social media companies do not have to publish everything that people upload.

Also, these companies choose which things they promote to their readers through their algorithms — just like a newspaper does when deciding what to put on the front of the paper and what to put further back.

Getty Images – Getty

Conspiracy theories surrounding 5G proliferate – pictured graffiti in Cardiff[/caption]

In 2018, a blogger named Alison Chabloz, from Derbyshire, was found guilty of broadcasting anti-Semitic songs on YouTube.

One described the Nazi death camp Auschwitz as “a theme park just for fools” and the gas chambers a “proven hoax”. She was actually prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act. She was found guilty of sending grossly offensive messages through a communications network.

It was as if she was the only person who had done something wrong.

It was treated the same way as if she had phoned someone up and shouted obscenities at them.

But uploading videos to YouTube is not like phoning somebody, it’s like being published in a newspaper or being broadcast on TV.

Social media companies are not communication networks like the telephone — they are media companies and publishers. That needs to be recognised now.

Take action

We need the Government to create a level playing field between social media and professional media.

Social media companies, such as YouTube, already get most of their content for free. It’s not fair that they should also be able to profit from misinformation and lies without facing the consequences that a newspaper or television station would have to face if it tried to do the same.

In some respects they have already shown they can change. YouTube used to indulge in mass copyright violation. Movies, pop videos and TV programmes were being uploaded without the permission of the creator.

YouTube was forced to get its act together on that and has managed to get rid of most of that content.

When the Government makes it the responsibility of the platforms to sort themselves out, they are capable of doing it.


I believe that one of the reasons that social media have been reluctant to take action against the conspiracy theorists is that they make so much money out of that content.

So it’s time for the Government to act. 

This false information can be a matter of life and death.

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