Nancy Pelosi: Social media bosses have 'utterly failed' to combat Covid-19 disinformation

Covid-19 disinformation should be challenged

Social media bosses have “utterly failed to stop the spread of disinformation” during the Covid-19 crisis, one of America’s most influential politicians has said.

In a message of social media executives, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, said: “You will be held accountable for your misconduct.”

She was speaking in an online forum discussion on Covid-19 disinformation on social media hosted by the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics alongside other politicians from the US, Canada and the UK (see full video below). 

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Pelosi said: “The proliferation of disinformation through social media presents a crisis for our democracy. I believe that. One that has been alarmingly accelerated over recent months.

“Fear-mongering, fraudulent groups are using social media to scam users with false cures and fake claims about Covid-19.”

She highlighted for concern disinformation campaigns apparently run by foreign nations, as well as “dangerous” comments made by US President Donald Trump.

You will be held accountable for your misconduct’

“Yet social media executives have utterly failed to stop the spread of disinformation on their platforms,” she said.

“Instead, again and again, they have sold out the public interest to pad their corporate profits. We know that. Their business model is to capture your time and attention – even if that’s at the expense of the truth.

“Meanwhile, rather than hold platforms accountable, the Trump administration is encouraging them to profit off of falsehoods with total impunity.”

She called for widespread action – including from advertisers who can withhold funds – to ensure that social media leaders know they bear responsibility.

Pelosi said: “Congress, employees, advertisers and the public must work as one to shine a bright light on the division and disinformation proliferating online.

“And together we must send a message to social media executives: You will be held accountable for your misconduct.”

Earlier this month, Press Gazette launched a new campaign, Fight The Infodemic, calling on social media firms to do more to combat coronavirus falsehoods that are proliferating online.

Speaking later in the forum from the UK, Damian Collins – a Tory MP who co-founded Infotagion, a group that seeks to challenge Covid-19 falsehoods – said that social media firms must crack down on people or groups that are “knowingly and maliciously spreading false information”.

I don’t think we should accept it’

He said: “I think at the heart of this is a challenge to the business models of the companies, and the need for them to be held responsible and accountable for the things that happen on their platform. Ultimately they are responsible for what happens on their platform. And the reason for that is their tools help to curate and push content to the people that use it.”

Collins added that social media companies should be subject to independent, outside scrutiny in the same way as other media companies – like broadcasters in the UK, which are regulated by Ofcom.

“I think it’s wrong for the companies to be given safe harbour, immunity from acting against harmful content on their platforms,” he said.

“And therefore we need to make sure the power does not rest just with them. It should not be for them to decide, it should not be for us to have no ability to audit what they’re doing and to take action if we feel they’re getting it wrong.

“This is so important because social media has become the principal way in which many people get their news and information. People no longer rely on a newspaper or a news broadcast as their principal source of facts and information. If what they see online mixes together truthful content and harmful content and dishonest content in such a way the user simply doesn’t know what to believe, that is not good enough. I don’t think we should accept it.

“I fear that the companies will not voluntarily subject themselves to oversight. Therefore it may require legislators and parliaments around the world to develop their codes.”

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