A challenge for the Online Harms and Disinformation Inquiry

Tracey Brown today wrote to Julian Knight, chair of DCMS committee disinformation inquiry, calling for them to ‘use the power invested in parliament to insist the government communicates with the people about what it is doing and why’ instead of regulating what people share on WhatsApp. See the full letter below.


Julian Knight MP


Sub-Committee on Online Harms and Disinformation

Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee

House of Commons

London SW1A 0AA

21st April 2020

Dear Julian

I am sending you some different examples than those requested in your inquiry. These indicate the information vacuum that is being created by the government’s lack of transparency on covid-19 decision making, which is then fed by disinformation and rumours.

While I understand the sub-committee’s interest in online platforms and disinformation, far and away the bigger problem for the public, and for those of us equipping people to understand evidence, is the absence of information on how government is assessing evidence and calculating risks and trade-offs. It leaves us with nothing to point people to. Even well-informed experts are speculating about what the government knows and has paid attention to. Above all, the government’s announcement that it won’t publish the background to its decisions sounds – to a public that has been through WMD, Hillsborough, child abuse cover ups and vCJD – like even if the authorities aren’t covering things up, they are reserving the right to.

People are obviously going to speculate about the sea of emerging evidence and go looking for answers. Sense about Science in 20 years and 100s of 1000s of interactions with the public about evidence, has never seen so much interest in understanding complex data, emerging scientific findings and the costs and benefits of policy. That’s a good thing. It would be a pathetic nation that got locked up at home and didn’t ask searching questions.

It seems to have escaped government, though, that its extensive and unprecedented powers during this crisis must be matched by a commensurate level of accountability and openness of information. Transparency of evidence in decision making is not a nice-to-do thing, to be retrofitted in calmer times; it is an essential part of managing the crisis.

Parliament, surely, should be leading this call? Could I urge your committee that instead of seeking further measures to censor internet platforms and restrict people’s conversations alongside all the other restrictions they face, you focus just now on the primary issue – the absence of public-facing platforms in government that set out its reasoning, the scientific advice and evidence used and how the uncertainties are being addressed. That is much more within the bounds of what parliament can and should influence.

You may be familiar with Sense about Science’s work with communities to promote the public interest in sound science and evidence, particularly on challenging and complex subjects. We have achieved some changes that your committee may find useful to refer to in considering government covid-19 communications. In 2009 we drew up and campaigned for the Principles for Independent Scientific Advice with the backing of the research community and people from all parts of the UK. In 2010 David Cameron incorporated them into the Ministerial Code, which has been signed by every minister in the current government. The principles cover transparency and publication of scientific advice. In 2016 and 2018 we led transparency reviews of government departments using the Transparency of Evidence Framework developed with the Institute for Government and the WhatWorks national adviser. This was followed by workshops with departments in which we looked at how government bodies can meet public expectations of transparency and accountability, and discuss difficult areas such as uncertainty. The Treasury Green Book (the rules on policy making) now refers to the need for Transparency of Evidence in its introduction and throughout.

Details of all of these are in Appendices 2 and 3 and I’d be happy to discuss them further with you. You will already be aware that transparency is a key theme in the Civil Service Reform Plan progress report and the Open Government National Action Plan. There is no shortage of transparency commitments that you can refer to.

I have also attached a letter that we sent to the Prime Minister earlier this month, signed by around a hundred supporting organisations and individuals, asking the government to be open about plans for Covid-19 testing and related evidence because of the spiralling online speculation. This was followed by some greater clarity from Public Health England. Indeed, there are senior people within government who are both capable and committed to having a frank and adult discussion with the public about the way that decisions are and will be taken. They are not holding sway at the moment.

As an organisation dealing daily with people’s questions, confusion and frustration we know well the impact of fake news and disinformation. The partial picture that the public has, though, of why the authorities have taken the decisions they have is much harder to address. There are many other organisations, our own Ask for Evidence ambassadors around the country, and superb research body outreach that are taking all opportunities to equip people to weigh up the claims they see. We urge you not to settle for being another voice calling out misinformation and not to seek legislation that will divide people and further fuel rumours, but to use the power that is invested in Parliament, and your remit on the DCMS committee, to insist that the government communicates with the people about what it is doing and why.

Yours sincerely

Tracey Brown OBE