MPs are calling for social media companies to be held to account for the spread of conspiracy theories online linking 5G technology to the coronavirus outbreak.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is to discuss the issue with tech giants this week.
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee chairman Julian Knight said the committee supported the Government’s actions and called for a strong response.
It comes following reports of phone masts being attacked after theories spread online suggesting the rollout of 5G was linked to the Covid-19 outbreak.
“To hear that crackpot theories are leading to people attacking phone masts or threatening telecom workers is sickening and it’s clearly time to act,” Mr Knight said.
“We’ve called on the Government to work with social media companies to stamp out deliberate attempts to spread fear about Covid-19 and it is right that they are being called to account for allowing disinformation on their platforms.”
A number of posts showing phone masts on fire, as well as others encouraging such behaviour, have been removed from platforms such as Facebook.
Numerous scientists have repeatedly stated that there is zero evidence to link 5G and Covid-19.
Brendan Wren, professor of microbial pathogenesis at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “There is no scientifically credible evidence to link the introduction of 5G masts with the Covid-19 outbreak.
“This would be both a physical and biological impossibility.”
Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, said targeting the internet connections and phone masts which were playing a vital part in the global response to the virus was akin to “knocking holes in your lifeboats while your ship sinks”.
Downing Street has also hit out at Russian “disinformation” after a state-run news agency claimed Boris Johnson would soon be put on a ventilator as he struggles with coronavirus.
Russia’s RIA-Novosti had claimed the Prime Minister would be put on a ventilator, citing a “source close to the leadership” of the NHS.
The PM’s spokesman said: “That is disinformation. Our specialist government units have seen a rise in false and misleading narratives since the coronavirus pandemic started. It’s vital that any disinformation is knocked down quickly.”
Social media platforms have each publicly committed to combating disinformation, with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google all placing official coronavirus advice at the top of search results and news feeds.
However, some posts suggesting a link between the rollout of the mobile technology and the virus are still visible online.
A spokesman for Facebook said: “We are taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading on our platforms and connect people to accurate information about coronavirus.
“Under our existing policies against harmful misinformation, we are starting to remove false claims which link Covid-19 to 5G technology and could lead to physical harm.
“We will continue to work closely with governments and other tech companies to remove harmful misinformation and have partnered with health authorities like the WHO and NHS to connect people to the latest official guidance.”
In a joint letter, the UK’s four largest mobile operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – said the attacks on phone masts were harming people and businesses who depended on connectivity.
“Sadly, we have experienced cases of vandals setting fire to mobile masts, disrupting critical infrastructure and spreading false information suggesting a connection between 5G and the Covid-19 pandemic,” the letter said.
“There is no scientific evidence of any link between 5G and coronavirus. Fact.
“Stopping this is critical to keeping your communities connected. Not only are these claims baseless, they are harmful for the people and businesses that rely on the continuity of our services. They have also led to the abuse of engineers and, in some cases, prevented essential network maintenance taking place.”
O2 revealed last week it was issuing engineers working on essential projects with a sign to explain they are a key worker, after reports of telecoms staff being verbally abused by members of the public.
The DCMS committee is also asking the public to submit examples of disinformation to its inquiry into information on Covid-19, which will look to call in social media companies to face questions on the issue.
The committee has also called on new Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes to investigate concerns that state-backed international news organisations – particularly in China – were spreading “false narratives” about the virus through social media to circumvent UK broadcasting regulation.
Conservative MP Damian Collins, who has launched fact-checking service Infotagion, which aims to combat falsehoods during the pandemic, said there had been a “shift” in online disinformation around Covid-19 in the past week.
He said the disinformation appearing online had moved from theories about cures for Covid-19 to conspiracies about “where it has originated and come from”.
The former chairman of the DCMS committee said social media giants should investigate the “means of distribution of disinformation” on their sites – such as online groups with thousands of members.
“I think if a story has been posted and it is proven to be false, and there’s an agreement that the story should be removed, the social media company should stop it being re-posted,” he said.
“It’s not just about responding to an individual story and trying to close that down.
“I think it’s about saying well actually, what are we doing about the primary mechanism of the distribution of this content?”