Professor Philip Howard, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute revealed that celebs were the “pivot point” that take lies often concocted by Russian and Chinese bots and bring them into the “human world.”
TV presenters Amanda Holden and Eamon Holmes were recently blasted for sharing 5G conspiracy theories about coronavirus, while boxer Amir Khan and actor Woody Harrelson have also shared fake news over coronavirus.
Tech giants Twitter, Google and Facebook were all given a ticking off yesterday by the MPs grilling them accusing them of being “unable to answer basic questions” about the disinformation.
Julian Knight MP, who was chairing the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) sub-committee on online harms and disinformation said: “We will be writing to all your organisations, with a series of questions and frankly will be expressing our displeasure at the quality and lack of answers we have received and will be seeking further clarity.”
Prof Howard told the committee on Online Harms and Disinformation there are around a billion pieces of misinformation and fake news online – most of these are deliberately put out by state-run bots and are in English – targeting users in the UK and USA.
He said: “In some ways influencers are the gateway drug. If a prominent Hollywood star, or a prominent political figure says things that are not consistent with the science or public health advice, some people will go looking for that stuff and spread it.
“That is how misinformation is spread, Those influencers, the human influencers take the lie from something that bots share with each other to something that passes in human networks.”
Stacie Hoffman, Digital Policy and Cyber Security Consultant, Oxford Information Labs said that platforms should remind influencers of their responsibility not to spread fake news.
She said: “It might be something that the UK would look to put in guidelines for, in terms of who influencers are, and what our expectations are of those people.”
Dr Claire Wardle, Co-Founder and Director, First Draft News also told the committee said she had never seen a time with more conspiracy theories circulating.
She added: “We have been monitoring the 5G conspiracy theory since January, and it was bubbling along until three weeks ago Woody Harrelson in the States and Amir Khan and
Amanda Holden in the UK put it into the mainstream media.”
The expert added that it was important to understand why these theories had taken a hold – as there is no set narrative behind the start of coronavirus.
She added: “There isn’t a good origin story for the virus, so this information vacuum is allowing misinformation to circulate.
“They are simple powerful narratives for what is going on right now, and people feel out of control.
“Conspiracy theories give people control as it gives an explanation, which they are lacking.”