During a global pandemic ensuring accurate factual information is available to the public is essential but how can we guarantee this when news is sourced from a growing range of outlets and how can limiting information ensure the right to Freedom of Expression is not diminished?

In recent weeks, we have heard a range of conspiracy theories and so-called ‘fake news’ voiced by television personalities and even the President of the United States, allowing unregulated opinions and unsubstantiated, even harmful cures, for the coronavirus to be shared with millions who may naturally believe them to be reliable sources.

Unlike television and radio in the UK, social media has free rein on what information it can share. As a result, sites like Facebook and Twitter are often breeding grounds for baseless lies and theories, often devised to fit a larger narrative. Supporters of social media platforms have repeatedly endorsed the importance of a free Internet that prioritises Freedom of Expression while critics would argue these platforms have facilitated a growth of ‘fake news’. The seriousness of the coronavirus has lent support to the critics. The potential harm arising from such freedoms to spread misinformation about the virus has prompted Facebook to show notifications to users who have interacted with posts containing “harmful” coronavirus information and direct them to official sources such as the World Health Organisation.

By comparison, such steps by Facebook are minimal compared to the content regulation of television and radio services in the UK regulated by the communications watchdog, Ofcom. Facebook, for example, does not take down other misinformation about coronavirus, such as conspiracy theories about the virus’ origins, but instead uses a third-party fact-checking system. This, it might be argued, can only aim to reduce, rather than prevent, the spread of baseless theories.

An example of the dangerous power of social media is the bleach ‘miracle cure’ for coronavirus, brought into the spotlight after it was suggested (and later rebuked) by President Trump at a White House press briefing last week. Despite medical professionals immediately confirming that any bleach treatment would not cure the virus but cause serious damage to health, rumours continued to circulate on Twitter and Facebook, forcing the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take action against the leading supplier of the supposed remedy. If there was online content regulation, would these dangerous claims be shutdown, instead encouraging or directing people to look for more factually sound information about the virus or would it shutdown all alternative debate too?

What about the baseless claims that the 5G network causes a weakening of the immune system which is responsible for the spread of coronavirus, most famously propagated by leading British conspiracy theorist David Icke? In one YouTube live stream, which was viewed by over 65,000 people, Icke made the claim that “If 5G continues…human life as we know it is over”. While this video at best, seemingly inspires a dangerous, pseudoscientific view and at worst, encourages criminal activity, YouTube provided no warning about the content of the stream and instead merely limited how frequently it was recommended to users. YouTube has now banned all videos made supporting these groundless theories, stating that it could “misinform users in harmful ways”, but perhaps the damage has already been done. In the week following Icke’s stream, 20 arson attacks were carried out on telephone masts across the UK, including one providing mobile connectivity to the Nightingale hospital in Birmingham.

When similar claims were recently broadcast on Ofcom-regulated television and radio services, Ofcom acted swiftly to sanction London Live, the London based TV service, for showing an interview with David Icke where he repeated the same claims. It also sanctioned a local community radio service Uckfield FM for broadcasting similar claims endorsed by a nurse. In both these cases, the potential for harm arising from these broadcasts was a serious concern and both licensees will be required to broadcast a summary of Ofcom's findings and may even face additional sanctions which may range from a fine to the revocation of their broadcasting license. Moreover, these decisions act as a deterrent to all other Ofcom services to ensure they broadcast content responsibly ensuring it does not misinform and potentially harm viewers and listeners.

In recent months, the government has recommended Ofcom to be the new online watchdog handing it the responsibility to oversee online content regulation.  At the time of a global pandemic the need to manage misinformation to the public is is paramount. However, ultimately any regulatory system has to be about balancing the limiting of information with freedom of expression, ensuring the right voices are heard while only suppressing the wrong ones where completely necessary – most particularly when there is a potential risk of harm to the public.

By Alex Buchanan, Wilson's School