Australia

Tech companies should be forced to reveal ‘rampant’ COVID-19 misinformation, health experts say


Big Tech platforms should be forced to publish a list of coronavirus misinformation being shared on their platforms so the full extent of the problem can be recognised, a new coalition of health and technology experts say.

Reset Australia, the local affiliate of the global initiative working to counter digital threats to democracy, called on politicians to introduce legislation to enforce a Big Tech ‘Live List’ to counter “rampant misinformation” in a letter on Monday.

Once a misleading post has received more than 1,000 cumulative impressions on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram or other social media sites, it should be added to the ‘Live List’ which would be made available to government officials, researchers and journalists, the coalition argues.

“We know that misinformation, spread via platforms like Facebook, is hampering the efforts of Australian medical authorities … [but] we collectively understand very little about this misinformation and what kind of demographics are consuming it,” the letter read.

“The only people who currently enjoy a bird’s-eye view on the spread of COVID-19 misinformation are the Big Tech giants themselves.”

The letter was supported by the Immunisation Coalition, the Immunisation Foundation of Australia, Coronavax, and the Doherty Institute.

‘Misinformation costs lives’

Catherine Hughes, from the Immunisation Foundation of Australia, said it was crucial action was taken quickly because “misinformation costs lives”.

“I’ve spoken with heartbroken parents who chose not to vaccinate their children after being scared by online misinformation, only to have their children die or suffer serious consequences from a vaccine-preventable disease,” said Ms Hughes, who lost her own son to whooping cough before he was old enough to be vaccinated against the disease.

“This misinformation flourishes on social media, where fear translates quickly into clicks and shares. It is vital COVID misinformation is able to be tracked, and not hidden, so experts have a chance at countering some of the most dangerous myths being perpetuated.”

The government has already called on tech and social media companies to come up with a voluntary code of conduct, to be administered by the Australian Communications Media Authority, which would provide a series of standardised responses for how the platforms deal with misinformation.

This could include adding a warning label, as Twitter previously employed with former US president Donald Trump in the aftermath of the election, or the removal of harmful posts.

In a policy paper published last year to guide the code development, ACMA said almost 50 per cent of Australians rely on digital news or social media as their main source of news, while nearly two-thirds said they had come across COVID-19 misinformation online. 

The government recently came under fire for failing to publicly denounce Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly after he posted the results of a non-peer-reviewed study that found forcing children to wear face masks was akin to “child abuse” on Facebook.

Mr Kelly and Liberal colleague George Christensen have also previously called for a ban on anti-malaria medication hydroxychloroquine being used as a COVID-19 treatment to be overturned, despite widespread evidence that it is not effective. 

At the time, acting prime minister Michael McCormack refused to condemn Mr Kelly for spreading misleading health information, instead stating: “Facts are sometimes contentious”.

Meanwhile, Labor’s health spokesperson Chris Bowen accused Mr Kelly of a “systemic and deliberate attempt to undermine” medical professionals. 

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