Push for new laws to tackle COVID-19 misinformation ahead of vaccine rollout

Immunisation and technology experts are urging the federal parliament to pass new laws requiring social media giants to maintain a list of the most viral COVID-19 material to help combat misinformation as Australia prepares to roll out a vaccine.

The Doherty Institute in Melbourne, which has undertaken pivotal research informing Australia’s COVID-19 response, is among several health organisations that have signed an open letter urging politicians to “act immediately” to demand transparency from companies such as Facebook and Google.

“A ‘live list’ of the most popular COVID-related material being shared on social media
can and should be generated – and updated in real time – by the major big tech platforms,” the letter, which will be published online on Monday, says.

The Morrison government expects the first vaccines from pharmaceutical company Pfizer to arrive in Australia in February.Credit:AP

“Such a live list would help Australian medical experts identify and understand misinformation
and to create community engagement responses.”

The letter will also be sent to every federal politician. The campaign is being led by responsible technology advocacy group Reset Australia, and has also been backed by the Immunisation Coalition and the Immunisation Foundation of Australia.

Kim Sampson, chief executive of the Immunisation Coalition, which collaborates with state and territory health departments, said vaccine hesitancy was a “real threat to Australia and the world’s ability to return to some semblance of normalcy”.

“Understanding who is being targeted and what kind of lies they’re being fed would help us relieve community concerns and fears,” Mr Sampson said.

Reset Australia executive director Chris Cooper said new laws were necessary because the public did not have any oversight on how the tech companies’ algorithms operated.

“We know that COVID-misinformation is prevalent on these platforms but no one knows the scale of that misinformation. Only the platforms have the bird’s eve view and oversight of what their algorithms are amplifying,” Mr Cooper said.

The campaign comes as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg confirmed on Sunday that the rollout of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Australia remained “on track” to begin in mid-to-late February, despite continued shortages overseas.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, and Google which owns YouTube, both defended their current processes for tackling misinformation.

“This work includes providing a free, publicly available CrowdTangle Live dashboard of trending COVID-19 content across our apps, including in Australia,” a spokeswoman for Facebook said.

Facebook said between March and October of 2020 it had removed 12 million pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram for containing misinformation that may lead to imminent physical harm, such as content relating to fake preventative measures or exaggerated cures.

A Google spokesman said the company had been “working closely with public health authorities and epidemiologists throughout the pandemic and we will continue to do so”.

“In terms of COVID-19 related misinformation on YouTube, we are updating our policies regularly and they now prohibit a range of vaccine related misinformation claims (for example: that vaccines cause death or infertility, that vaccines will include tracking devices),” the spokesman said.

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