Social media should be held to account for spread of 5G coronavirus conspiracies

Social media companies should be held to account for the spread of conspiracy theories stating that 5G phone masts are helping to transmit Covid-19, the UK Government has said.

Julian Knight, the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, has called for members of the public to send in examples of disinformation to help with its inquiry into “Disinformation on Covid-19”.

At least seven mobile masts have been targeted with arson attacks in the past week, including in Melling (Merseyside), Liverpool, Belfast and Birmingham (although the Birmingham-based mast did not actually have 5G capability).

“To hear that crackpot theories are leading to people attacking phone masts or threatening telecom workers is sickening and it’s clearly time to act,” Knight said.

“We’ve called on the Government to work with social media companies to stamp out deliberate attempts to spread fear about Covid-19 and it is right that they are being called to account for allowing disinformation on their platforms.

“We’re also calling on Ofcom to investigate whether international news organisations are using social media to disseminate state-backed disinformation on Covid-19 in order to get around UK broadcasting regulation.”

YouTube has already announced plans to crack down on content promoting such unsubstantiated claims. Numerous scientists have repeatedly stated that there is zero evidence to link 5G and Covid-19.

Brendan Wren, professor of microbial pathogenesis at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “There is no scientifically credible evidence to link the introduction of 5G masts with the Covid-19 outbreak. This would be both a physical and biological impossibility.”

Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, said targeting the internet connections and phone masts which were playing a vital part in the global response to the virus was akin to “knocking holes in your lifeboats while your ship sinks”.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp has also been tightening its message-forwarding limits, restricting users to sharing forwarded content one chat at a time. It made the move after a jump in messages touting false medical advice since the start of the pandemic. Previously, such messages could be forwarded to five different chats at once.

WhatsApp already marks frequently forwarded messages with a set of double arrows, which denotes that they have already been forwarded at least five times. The messaging service said it did not see the forwarding functionality as inherently bad, but acknowledged that it could be used to spread false information.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation,” it said in a statement.

“We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation.”

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