Online Harms

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:21 pm on 19th November 2020.

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Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office) 3:21 pm, 19th November 2020

The huge rise in online scams, hate speech and conspiracy theories has highlighted why the Government have to take action urgently, not just by passing legislation but having a counter-narrative to challenge the fake stories we hear about.

Looking at online hate speech at a recent Home Affairs Committee session, we heard that Facebook had deleted a staggering 9.6 million hate speech posts in the first quarter of this year. Much of that hate was directed towards south and east Asian communities, fuelled in part by President Trump using his position of power to fan the flames of hate by calling covid-19 the China virus. However, those 9.6 million posts are only the tip of the iceberg. There is still hate speech that has not been taken down, where it falls short of being hate speech. This is an area that must concern us greatly.

It is not just the south and east Asian communities who have been targeted. Before lockdown, the blame for coronavirus was already being directed at the Muslim, Jewish, Gypsy, Roma, Traveller and LGBT+ communities. Chinese and east Asian people in the UK endured physical and verbal attacks, while Muslims were accused of ignoring lockdown and spreading the virus by visiting mosques. Conspiracy theories were abundant, and falsely linking those groups to the spread of the virus allowed those conspiracy theories to flourish.

That leads me to disinformation and conspiracy theories. The anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are particularly insidious, because casting doubt in people’s minds will result in people choosing not to be vaccinated, which in turn could lead to them catching the virus and passing it on to others. I will not give credence to any absurd anti-vaccine conspiracy theories by repeating them, but unchecked they could be damaging to the health of the nation.

Last year, I had the pleasure of visiting Ethiopia with the charity RESULTS UK to see how it has almost eradicated tuberculosis by vaccinating the majority of the country over the past decade, so I have seen the impact that a well-administered programme of vaccination can have. There needs to be a strong counter-narrative from the Government. That has been missing in countering both hate speech and anti-vaccination theories.

In conclusion, the Government have been dragging their heels on the online harms Bill, which has been talked about for the past three years. Urgent action is needed to counter hate speech, extremism and conspiracy theories to keep our communities and those who need protection safe. We need a counter-narrative to challenge those threats and we need legislative protection. We need action and we need it now, because people’s lives could be depending on it.