April 29, 2020 / 11:01 PM / a month ago

Bad and going viral: UK charity highlights COVID-19 misinformation

LONDON, April 30 (Reuters) - Internet and media companies should do more to tackle the spread of misinformation in Britain, independent fact-checking charity Full Fact said in a report on Thursday highlighting falsehoods that have spread during the coronavirus outbreak this year.

The novel coronavirus has opened up a new front in the battle against misinformation, with false claims and conspiracy theories possibly having a negative effect on public health.

“Bad information ruins lives. We’ve seen first hand how it can dissuade people from engaging in democracy, and risk their finances, health or personal safety. The outbreak of the new coronavirus has brought this into starker focus in recent months,” Chief Executive Will Moy said.

“Here in the UK, we have seen misinformation take hold in the form of fake cures, spurious claims, conspiracy theories and financial scams.”

Full Fact reiterated a call for reforms to election laws to help safeguard future votes, and has highlighted misleading campaign tactics in last December’s general election.

But the emphasis of its work has quickly shifted to health as COVID-19 has spread throughout the world.

Full Fact said that falsehoods concerning the risks of vaccines and a conspiracy theory linking coronavirus to 5G telecom networks were two common types of misinformation.

Earlier this month, Britain said a conspiracy theory that links 5G masts to the spread of the coronavirus was dangerous fake news and completely false after masts in several parts of the country were torched.

Full Fact added that an online form it had launched to let users send in their questions about the COVID-19 epidemic had seen more than 2,000 responses in just over three weeks.

Tech firms have acted to curb misinformation related to the virus. Earlier in April, Facebook-owned WhatsApp tightened message-forwarding limits in a bid to limit messages touting bogus medical advice.

In a new annual report, Full Fact said that internet companies should implement transparency principles to detail how much content on their platforms are flagged as false or misleading, and what measures are taken against such posts.

Full Fact last year joined Facebook’s Third Party Fact Checking programme, which provides a queue of flagged posts that have been identified as possibly false for the charity to review, possibly resulting in misleading posts being “downranked” in the the social media site’s algorithm.

The charity said Facebook’s fact-checking programme was “not perfect, but it is an important step in the process” and encouraged other sites to set up similar processes.

Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Stephen Addison

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