Julian Knight, the chairman of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, warned that if online fake news was not tackled it could affect the take-up of an eventual coronavirus vaccine, causing “very great harm to society”.
Mr Knight said he wanted to see Ofcom named as the new online regulator and given powers to fine or even prosecute social media companies, as well as the resources to investigate the secretive algorithms tech companies use to determine what their users see.
His comments came as the culture committee released a report saying the UK’s lack of online regulation had allowed coronavirus misinformation to spread “virulently” on social media.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Knight said: “Healthcare professionals told us they even saw people injecting themselves with bleach or taking liquids that were harmful.
“They also said that on a more subtle level – but probably even more damaging in terms of numbers – many people were not presenting at hospital because they had seen misinformation and disinformation out there that was effectively saying that hospitals were completely overwhelmed and unsafe places.”
During the culture committee’s investigation, MPs also heard that misinformation linking 5G mobile signal to the spread of coronavirus had seen more than 70 recorded threats to telecoms engineers, as well as mobile signal towers being burned.
Mr Knight said social media companies’ attempts to clean up their sites had been “patchy” and ultimately “hadn’t worked”.
Meanwhile, Government ministers have said they intend to bring forward legislation by the end of the current parliamentary session, which has led children’s charities to warn that a regulator may not be in force until 2024.
Mr Knight said that, without regulation, the fake news problem would fester and could cause serious real world harm in the future.
“What is this going to do in the future for when we get a vaccine, which we all hope for?” he added. “What happens there if there are very anti-vaccine messages going out there? That could lead to very great harm to society.”