Voters are worried about false information online – and political parties need to listen up

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 18th June 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has seen waves of misinformation reach every part of the globe – and the UK is no exception.

Voters here are concerned about false information online. Traditionally though, the main concern has been dodgy info spread by fake news outlets (or ‘click farms’), members of the public, or foreign states. But a new study suggests people are worried about misinformation from political figures.

In a new report, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows that, in the UK, 63% of people are concerned about what is real and fake on the internet when it comes to news. While it’s down on last year’s figures, that’s still nearly two thirds of people unsure what to trust online. And there’s some other worrying findings in there.

In Reuters’ Digital News Report’s survey, 37% of respondents said they had come across a lot or a great deal of misinformation about Covid-19 on social media and 32% said the same of messaging apps, like Whatsapp. Twice as many people are concerned about social media (40%) as a source of misinformation compared with news websites (20%).

That’s partly because conspiracy theories linking the virus to 5G networks have been widely spread on social media.

But the worrying finding for democracy watchers is this: domestic politicians are seen as most responsible (40%) for spreading false and misleading information online, followed by political activists (14%), journalists (13%), ordinary people (13%), and foreign governments (10%), Press Gazette report.

The ERS have long highlighted the threat of the ‘wild west’ online when it comes to political campaigning. The recent fracas over Twitter ‘flagging’ tweets from Donald Trump as potentially harmful/misleading can be contrasted to Facebook’s decision not to put a health warning on identical posts. (It should be noted that Twitter no longer accepts money for political ads – Facebook does).

A Commons committee recently heard just how hard it is to even get basic information on from the social media giants on their handling of misinformation. Transparency would be a good start.

Holding political ads to account

When it comes to political ads – currently unregulated online – there have been some real shifts lately. The Advertising Standards Authority – traditionally opposed to regulating political ads – recently came out in support of holding political ads online to account.

The 2019 election saw widespread reports of misinformation spread by political campaigners. The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising found that at least 31 campaigns from across the party spectrum were ‘indecent, dishonest or untruthful’. First Draft News also found there was ‘high-level disinformation’ and false polling reports in the final week of campaigning.

While political ads are hard to regulate, there is much that can be done to boost fact checking, improve social media giants’ handling of these issues. Researchers recently found that ‘red-flagging’ misinformation could slow the spread of fake news on social media.

We must also increase transparency and accountability among political campaigners – not least setting out who is paying to spread their message online. It remains a glaring, unacceptable loophole that printed campaign materials must say who’s funding it, but not material spread online.

The ERS has long called for stronger citizenship education, which could help all of us identify fake news and figure out how to stop its spread. And we should see more investment pumped into quality, trust-worthy journalism, to counter the tide of fake news.

[bctt tweet=”The ERS has long called for stronger citizenship education, which could help all of us identify fake news and figure out how to stop its spread” username=”electoralreform”]

Just as I was writing this piece, Facebook unveiled a number of changes to increase online transparency- showing who paid for a political ad even after it has been shared by another user, and tracking ad spend on a candidate-by-candidate basis. But as the Open Knowledge Foundation noted: “The concern remains that Facebook is still able to self-regulate, which is why analogue electoral laws in the US, UK and the EU need to be updated for the digital age.”

Whatever mix of these methods we use, it’s clear the current free-for-all cannot continue. In a pandemic, it is putting lives at grave risk. During an election, it puts the integrity of our democracy at grave risk, too.

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