Social media giants recalled to parliament over COVID-19 fake news

Executives at Facebook, Google and Twitter have been recalled to appear before a committee of MPs who claim they failed to provide clear answers in a hearing over the issue of fake news related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Following an online hearing last month, Julian Knight, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee (DCMS) criticised social media executives for a “lack of clarity and openness” in their responses over the ‘infodemic’ of false narratives - such as conspiracy theories around 5G broadband or claims of fake Twitter accounts posing as those of NHS staff.

The session was attended by Katy Minshall, UK head of government, public policy and philanthropy at Twitter; Richard Earley, UK public policy manager at Facebook; and Alina Dimofte, public policy and government relations manager at Google.

The online harms and disinformation sub-committee launched an inquiry into the issue earlier this year, with the public invited to send in examples of online disinformation and misinformation ahead of the hearing.

Knight has also said that follow-up questions posed to the organisations in writing have failed to produce clear answers on the issue of disinformation and conspiracy theories during the Coronavirus outbreak.

The committee is now calling for senior members of staff to appear to shed light on the companies’ strategy for responding to online harms, and has requested that UK-based executives like Ronan Harris, Google’s UK and Ireland vice president and managing director; and Dara Nasr, managing director of Twitter UK appear at the hearing.

Facebook’s US-based head of global policy management Monika Bickert has also been asked to give evidence.

Knight said: “We were very disappointed by the standard of evidence given by all three social media companies, given the damage that can be done by the deliberate spreading of false information about COVID-19 and the need to tackle it urgently.

“The failures by Twitter, Facebook and Google to give adequate answers in writing to our outstanding questions have left me with no alternative but to recall them to parliament," he continued. “This time we expect the companies to demonstrate the importance they attach to this issue by sending senior executives who have knowledge of their policies and can be held accountable for them.”

The committee has published a list of specific issues they wish individual companies to address in the hearing.

Facebook is being asked to provide evidence on design decisions for WhatsApp in limiting the spread of false narratives; reliance of automated content moderation and the scope and effectiveness of its new ‘correct the record’ tools.

Twitter has been asked to provide evidence on user verification, reporting mechanisms and content moderation as well as concerns about the role of influencers and ‘blue ticks’ in spreading misinformation such as 5G conspiracy theories; including high profile celebrities and politicians.

Meanwhile Google has been asked to cover user reporting functionality, algorithms and recommendation systems; placing of ads on websites peddling conspiracy theories; and concerns that YouTube allowed creators to effectively monetise spread of misinformation through Super Chat revenue - demonstrated by the London Real David Icke case - going against other efforts to demonetise the videos.

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