Getting Government to Take Online Misinformation Seriously

Online misinformation poses a severe threat to our societies. Online misinformation is too regularly seen as a generational issue with older, less tech-savvy individuals more likely to fall victim to fake news. However, young people are more exposed to online misinformation, with Facebook and Twitter rated the most important news sources among 16-24 year olds. At the start of the pandemic, 58% of 18-24 year olds came across online misinformation. When looking at fake news in the context of its impact on public health, it is no exaggeration to view online misinformation as a life-or-death issue. 

While young people are most exposed to online misinformation, there is an argument that this age group is more digitally savvy and is therefore better at spotting fake news than older counterparts. But according to Fullfact, only one fifth of social media users who successfully identify fake news online actually do something about it. In short, more needs to be done to both reduce young people’s exposure to fake news and ensure that when online misinformation is spotted, it is called out to inoculate others from the threat it poses. 

That is why Polis Analysis, an online political media organization run by Gen Z volunteers for predominantly Gen Z readers that I founded, has embarked on a campaign to urge the UK Government to act. 

Only one fifth of social media users who successfully identify fake news online actually do something about it. 

There are two main ways the government could help to address online misinformation. The first is a top-down, regulatory approach that compels social media companies to remove content in the form of misinformation from their platforms. Calls for such action are widespread. The European Commission is proposing something similar as part of their Digital Services Act (DSA)

A top-down regulatory approach, however, can only go so far. For example, WhatsApp falls outside of the DSA’s scope because regulating it in this way would raise issues about individual rights to privacy and confidentiality. A holistic approach is therefore needed, combining regulatory intervention with a bottom-up focus on upskilling citizens. If individuals gain the right critical thinking skills, they will more successfully identify misinformation when it surfaces in private communication channels which are harder to regulate. Our goal, therefore, is to push the UK government to ensure people gain these skills by updating national education curriculums and creating workshops that teach people how to identify fake news. 

As we looked for ways to influence the UK government, we identified the Government’s Online Safety Bill as the best vehicle for achieving our ends. This legislative proposal is concerned with protecting people from harmful content online. 

The UK government has a process by which individual citizens and groups can influence legislation. When the government proposes new legislation, a cross-party committee of members of parliament is often created and tasked with scrutinizing the new bill. It is common practice for these pre-legislative scrutiny committees to launch public consultations in their attempt at gathering widespread evidence from experts. Evidence can be submitted by organizations and individuals. MPs will then use the evidence they have gathered to produce a report which communicates their views and recommendations on how to improve the government’s bill. It is the government’s prerogative to decide whether to adopt such recommendations and amend the bill before it is voted on in Parliament. 

As one of these committees was established to scrutinize the Online Safety Bill, we decided to submit evidence to influence the bill. The Polis Analysis proposal asked that the scope of the bill be broadened to include online misinformation as a form of social harm. Identifying misinformation in this way would legally compel social media companies to take down fake news when it is posted on their platforms. We also offered our education proposals. 

While 200 organizations submitted evidence to the parliamentary committee, we were among the only voices calling for online misinformation to be addressed. Perhaps this is one of the reasons some of our positions were adopted by the committee in their parliamentary report. The report includes a call for a holistic approach to tackling fake news, combining bottom-up solutions in the form of enhancing media literacy of citizens with a top-down regulatory approach that takes greater action vis-à-vis social media platforms. This was an important early win in the process of influencing government action. 

In recent days, the UK government has responded to the parliamentary committee’s report on the Online Safety Bill and adopted 66 of the recommendations, including our recommendation that greater efforts be made to develop media literacy among the UK population. 

At Polis, we believe there were three reasons we were successful in influencing this bill. These reasons may provide a guide for other organizations looking to influence policy. 

The most effective way of influencing government action on fake news is by working in government. However, we have shown that an organization of young volunteers with well-researched policy recommendations can have an impact. 

First, the policy recommendations we submitted were well-researched and rooted in evidence, which made them compelling. Second, these recommendations were submitted on behalf of an organization comprised of Gen Z volunteers, which was uniquely placed to argue for action to protect its peers. Third, the recommendations were championed by an organization that has over two years of experience in providing a bottom-up solution to tackling misinformation by equipping thousands of individuals in 100 countries with facts. Developing expertise in your field increases the chances of you being heard and taken seriously. 

It remains my view that the government could have gone further to properly tackle misinformation. At Polis, we view this success as just one step toward achieving our goal. We are currently undertaking independent research, including polling and surveying vulnerable groups, to inform future conversations we plan to have with policymakers. In the end, we need top-down legislative action to deliver the real action required to make a difference in this area. 

We asked that the scope of the Online Safety Bill be broadened to include online misinformation as a form of social harm.

Ultimately, I still believe that the most effective way of influencing government action on fake news is by working in government. However, we have shown that an organization of young volunteers with well-researched policy recommendations can have an impact. We will continue to bang on the door of government from the outside and hope that soon there will be young people on the inside who take seriously the need to protect our generation from the dangers of online misinformation.

Thomas Barton

Thomas Barton is the Founder and CEO of Polis Analysis, a startup provider of fact-based analysis on international politics. Thomas has a background in government affairs for leading FTSE 100 companies and has previously held roles in the U.K. Parliament and at a major U.K. political party. He has a BA in History from University College London and an MSc in Political Science from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Thomas is committed to supporting young people navigate global politics through delivering factual, non-partisan and accessible analysis.

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