Responding to the coronavirus ‘infodemic’: some lessons in tackling misinformation

Michela.Palese (1)alan.jfif (1)The proliferation of false, misleading and harmful information about the coronavirus has been described as an ‘infodemic’ by the World Health Organisation. Government, social media companies, and others have taken concerted action against it. Michela Palese and Alan Renwick here examine these responses and consider potential lessons for tackling online misinformation more broadly.

COVID-19 is rightly dominating the international agenda. Besides the crucial health, economic, and social dimensions, considerable attention is being paid to the information on COVID-19 that is circulating online. 

Ever since the virus emerged, false, misleading and/or harmful information has spread, especially online. Newsguard, which ranks websites by trustworthiness, found that, in the 90 days to 3 March, 75 US websites publishing coronavirus misinformation received ‘more than 142 times the engagement of the two major public health institutions providing information about the outbreak’. Ofcom found that ‘[a]lmost half of UK online adults came across false or misleading information about the coronavirus’ in the last week of March. The World Health Organisation (WHO) described the misinformation as an ‘infodemic – an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.’

The capacity of social media and 24/7 news to proliferate misinformation was already manifest. But this is the first time the potentially nefarious effects of an unregulated online space have combined with a global pandemic. As Conservative MP Damian Collins put it, this is the ‘first major public health crisis of the social media age’.

Governments and tech companies across the globe are responding. In this post, we highlight key steps and consider lessons for dealing with misinformation in general. Continue reading

What happens when the Prime Minister is incapacitated?

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Boris Johnson’s admission to hospital has led to speculation about who is ‘in charge’, if he is not able to fulfil his duties. Former Unit Director Robert Hazell outlines the constitutional position when the serving Prime Minister is incapacitated, arguing that our parliamentary system allows for greater flexiblity than a system in which a president is directly elected.

Since Boris Johnson was admitted to an Intensive Care Unit, the airwaves have been full of speculation about how government will be conducted in his absence, and what would happen if his condition worsens; or worse still, if he fails to recover.

When he formed his government, Boris Johnson appointed Dominic Raab as First Secretary of State as well as Foreign Secretary, and when he went into intensive care Johnson asked Raab to lead the government in his absence. So Dominic Raab will chair meetings of the Cabinet and the main Cabinet committees, and at the end of the discussion he will sum up and pronounce their collective decision. He will represent the government at its regular COVID-19 press briefings, unless he invites another minister to do so: as Johnson himself did in asking Health Secretary Matt Hancock to talk about health issues. And Raab will lead on all the government’s day-to-day business, and in responding to any other emergencies: for example, convening meetings of the National Security Council if there is a flare-up in the Middle East. In all this he will be supported by Sir Mark Sedwill, now a very experienced Cabinet Secretary, and the staff of the Cabinet Office, as well as the civil servants and political staff in Number 10.

What will happen if Johnson is ill for longer than expected? The Cabinet would then have to discuss whether to continue with these temporary arrangements, or start to consider a longer term solution if it seemed unlikely that Johnson could return to office. That leads on to the further question, what would happen if Johnson failed to recover. In those circumstances the Cabinet would then discuss who should be appointed as his successor, and would advise the Queen accordingly. Back in 1963, when Harold Macmillan reluctantly resigned from his hospital bed, it was the party elders (led by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Dilhorne) who took soundings of the Cabinet, leading to the Queen being advised to appoint Lord Home as his successor. But party leaders are now elected by the party membership rather than emerging through secret soundings, which can lead to a much longer process, typically lasting three months if the leadership election is contested. However, these would be difficult circumstances in which to hold a leadership contest, and it is notable that since the change in their rules the Conservatives have twice managed to choose a new party leader without reference to the wider membership – Michael Howard being elected unopposed in 2003, and Theresa May in 2016, when two of her rival candidates were eliminated in the initial votes by MPs, and two other candidates withdrew. Continue reading

Can Boris Johnson simply repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?

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The Conservative manifesto pledged to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but was silent about what, if anything, would replace it. Robert Hazell argues that it is not enough to simply repeal the Act; new legislation will have to be drafted, parliamentary scrutiny will have to take place, and the options for reform should be properly considered.

Can the Fixed-term Parliaments Act simply be repealed? The short answer is: no. As always, it is more complicated than that. But the commitment in the Conservative manifesto was unambiguous: ‘We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act [sic] – it has led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’ (page 48). And decisive action is what the government hopes to display through early repeal of the FTPA. It does not seem to be one of the issues to be referred to the new Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, since they were mentioned separately in the Queen’s Speech. So — unless the government has second thoughts — we can expect early legislation to be introduced to repeal the FTPA.

The government may feel that it can press ahead with little opposition, since the Labour manifesto contained an equally unambiguous commitment to repeal: ‘A Labour government will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which has stifled democracy and propped up weak governments’ (page 81). But there is no need for urgent legislation: this is not a pressing issue, and with a government majority of 87, we are not going to see motions for early dissolution or ‘no confidence’ any time soon. And there are good reasons for taking it more slowly: not least, that there is provision for a statutory review of the FTPA in section 7 of the Act, due to be initiated in 2020. In anticipation of that review, the Lords Constitution Committee is already conducting an inquiry into the operation of the Act, due to conclude in around March.

The evidence submitted last year to the Constitution Committee (in 14 written submissions, and four sessions of oral evidence) has brought out many of the difficulties involved. These are both political and technical. The main political difficulty is that repeal of the Act would return us to the situation where the incumbent Prime Minister can choose the date of the next election. No one disputes the potential advantage that confers: in Roy Jenkins’s famous phrase, uttered during a Lords debate on 11 March 1992, it is equivalent to deciding ‘to give the pistol in a race to one of the competitors and encourage him to fire it whenever he thinks that the others are least ready’. It also enables the government to time the election when they are doing well in the opinion polls, and to stoke up their support through good news announcements and giveaway budgets. Petra Schleiter’s research shows that this confers a significant electoral advantage: in the UK since 1945, the average vote share bonus realised on calling an early election was around 6%, and it doubled the likelihood that the incumbent PM survived in office.

Electoral fairness is the main argument for fixed terms, but not the only one. Other reasons include better planning in Whitehall because of greater certainty, less risk of losing legislation to a snap election, more clarity for the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators, and for the political parties. It is true that electoral certainty has not been much in evidence in recent years, with two early elections in 2017 and 2019. But it would be wrong to judge the FTPA solely on the basis of the extraordinary Brexit parliaments of 2015 and 2017. It is too early to rush to judgement, and it is too insular: most of the Westminster world, and almost all European parliaments have fixed terms, so there is plenty of wider experience to draw upon. A more balanced approach would ask – as the Lords Constitution Committee has done – whether the FTPA needs fine tuning, and if so what amendments are required, rather than rushing straight to repeal. Continue reading

Deal or no deal, the UK government needs a new strategy for the Union

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133Almost seven months after the EU and UK agreed to extend the Article 50 process, a new Brexit deal has been agreed. Akash Paun argues that whether the new deal passes parliament or not, the Brexit process so far has demonstrated that the UK government needs to change its strategy for maintaining the cohesion of the Union.

In his first public statement as prime minister, Boris Johnson made two constitutional pledges that stand in tension with one another. On the one hand, he promised to strengthen the UK, which he described as ‘the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red, white and blue flag, who together are so much more than the sum of their parts.’ But in the same speech, he reiterated his determination to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October ‘no ifs, no buts’ and, if necessary, no deal. Brexit has already strained relations between the UK and devolved governments. A no deal departure would make matters even worse, and would run directly counter to the PM’s ambitions to strengthen the Union.

The Scottish and Welsh governments strongly oppose leaving the EU without a deal. In a joint letter to the prime minister in July, the Scottish and Welsh first ministers argued that ‘it would be unconscionable for a UK government to contemplate a chaotic no deal exit and we urge you to reject this possibility clearly and unambiguously as soon as possible.’ The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have also explicitly voted against no deal. Continue reading

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings

robert-hazell-350x350In September the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published their report into Pre-Appointment Scrutiny Hearings. Robert Hazell gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry on the subject; here he discusses the report’s conclusions, and describes the events that led to its being undertaken, including two Constitution Unit studies that evaluated the effectiveness of such scrutiny.  

The recently published report of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) was the product of an inquiry undertaken at the request of the Commons Liaison Committee, because of growing concerns amongst Select Committee chairs that pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were a charade, especially when the government ignored committee recommendations.  The Liaison Committee and PACAC both heard evidence from the former Constitution Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell, who explained that pre-appointment hearings were more effective than MPs recognised, and suggested ways in which they could be made more effective still.

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were introduced by Gordon Brown, when he became Prime Minister in July 2007.  In his Green Paper The Governance of Britain he proposed:

… that the Government nominee for key positions … should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing with the relevant select committee. The hearing would be non-binding, but in the light of the report from the committee, Ministers would decide whether to proceed.  The hearings would cover issues such as the candidate’s suitability for the role, his or her key priorities, and the process used in the selection.

The Cabinet Office and the Liaison Committee subsequently agreed a list of just over 50 key positions which would be subject to the new procedure. Ten years later, by the end of the 2015-17 Parliament, there had been almost 100 scrutiny hearings, involving almost every single departmental Select Committee. The Constitution Unit conducted an early evaluation of the first 20 hearings in 2009-10, and a second study in 2016-17, looking at a further 70 hearings. Continue reading

Government still lacks a strategic approach to research

 

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The Cabinet Office this week published the official Areas of Research Interest for six government departments, including the Department for Transport and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Tom Sasse, of the Institute for Government, welcomes the decision to publish, but claims that the quality of the output varies between departments. At a time when ministers have less money to spend on research, he argues that the government does not work well enough with academia and needs to change its approach if proper evidence-based policy making is to occur in the future.

Policy makers need to find the research and evidence they need to strengthen policy, and researchers need to identify the Government’s priorities so that they can provide input.

The 2015 Nurse Review of Research Councils called on the government to publish the priority questions it would like answered through new or existing research. Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, announced the first publication of the Cabinet Office’s Areas of Research Interest (ARI) last week.

Six government departments (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; Health; Transport; Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Cabinet Office; and the Foreign Office) have now published their ARIs, with the rest expected to follow soon.

These first six ARIs are mostly brief, high-level and of mixed quality. The Department for Transport’s ARI, however, stands out as an example for others to follow.

These ARIs are welcome, but government departments need to develop more comprehensive strategies for accessing the evidence and research they need.

Continue reading

Constitution Unit publishes new study on non-executive directors in Whitehall

 

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In 2017, the Constitution Unit conducted the first-ever study of the work of non-executive directors (NEDs) within Whitehall. In this blog post, project leader Robert Hazell and Lucas Chebib, one of the project’s research volunteers, discuss the methodology and findings of the report. 

The Constitution Unit has just completed the first major study of non-executive board members in Whitehall (commonly known as non-executive directors, or NEDs). The report concluded that non-executives are high calibre, committed people, whose expertise is greatly valued by the civil service. However, NEDs themselves often said they find the role frustrating, and feel they could be much more effective if the system only allowed.

The study was carried out over 18 months by four former senior civil servants, with assistance from five research volunteers. The team compiled a detailed database of all NEDs; organised a survey; conducted almost 70 interviews; and tested their findings in private briefings and seminars. The full report is published here; what follows is a summary of the main points. Continue reading