Coronavirus: Almost half of British adults exposed to false information about coronavirus in a week, Ofcom warns

Pressure mounting on social media companies to stop spread of potentially dangerous health claims

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 09 April 2020 14:40 BST
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Almost half of British adults have been exposed to false or misleading information about coronavirus in the past week including potentially dangerous health claims, research shows.

Ofcom warned that two-thirds of people who came across falsehoods were seeing them every day, as many seek updates from social media or friends, and under-25s were more likely to be exposed.

Research from the first week of the UK’s lockdown suggested that the most commonly spread false claim was that drinking more water can flush out the infection, which was seen by 35 per cent of people surveyed.

It was followed by fake claims that coronavirus can be alleviated by gargling with saltwater, or avoiding cold food and drink.

Ofcom warned of the potential impact of conspiracy theories, including bizarre claims that coronavirus is being spread through the new 5G network.

Last week, a number of phone masts were damaged across the UK. The regulator said it would monitor people’s exposure to 5G conspiracies and sanction broadcasters who air “potentially harmful views” about the causes and spread of the virus.

Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s director for strategy and research, said: “People are turning to public authorities and traditional broadcasters for trusted information about Covid-19, and the vast majority say they’re closely following official advice.

“With so much false information circulating online, it’s never been more important that people can cut through the confusion and find accurate, trustworthy and credible sources of news and advice.”

It follows calls from senior MPs and other organisations to better hold social media companies to account over disinformation.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden spoke to Facebook, Twitter and Google on Wednesday to discuss how they could clamp down further on content, and said the companies agreed to continue to work together.

Social media platforms and other internet services have taken some steps to curb the spread of misinformation, such as promoting official advice and banning some types of content, but critics have said more needs to be done.

A parliamentary committee on online harms and disinformation has launched an inquiry into coronavirus misinformation.

It will hold hearings with social media giants to demand answers on what is being “done to tackle deliberate attempts to present false narratives”.

Many extremist groups have attempted to capitalise on coronavirus, with several attempting to blame ethnic, religious and national groups for the outbreak.

Police have been forced to debunk fake videos shared by far-right groups that claimed to show Muslims violating the lockdown.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have been denying the severity or even the existence of coronavirus, calling for people to ignore medical advice and spreading their own fake “cures”.

Officials fear the posts will stop people from complying with social distancing measures, put people’s health at risk and fuel hate crime, following a spike in attacks on people of east Asian appearance at the start of the outbreak.

Ofcom’s research found that 55 per cent of people were ignoring false claims about coronavirus, but 40 per cent are finding it hard to know what is true.

People said they were most likely to seek information on the pandemic from the BBC, other broadcasters or official sources like the World Health Organisation (WHO), NHS and government.

Half of respondents said they sought updates from social media, 43 per cent from newspapers, 42 per cent from family and friends and 15 per cent from closed messaging groups.

Public officials are the most trusted sources of news about coronavirus, followed by traditional broadcasters.

Boris Johnson’s statement announcing the lockdown on 23 March was the most-watched programme of 2020 so far, with an average of 28 million viewers tuned in across the six channels it was shown on.

Although 99 per cent of people are getting information about coronavirus at least once a day, one in five said they are trying to avoid news about the pandemic.

Ofcom is surveying 2,000 UK online adults each week for its research, with the first survey conducted between 27 and 29 March.

The figures only cover adults with internet access, which an estimated 13 per cent do not have in Britain.

Ofcom is providing resources for the general public and parents on how to navigate news and information about coronavirus.

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