Britain’s former spy boss has slammed social media for spreading fake news and conspiracy theories about vaccines and 5G phone masts causing coronavirus.
Sir David Omand, the ex-director of spy agency GCHQ, fears its "emotional" impact is distorting the truth.
He warned it could affect the quality of decisions made by "hapless ministers" on tackling Covid-19.
And he says he is issuing a call to arms to oppose "that rising tide of half-truths and distortion" and return to more rational thinking.
Sir David, who was the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, says he realised the problem after the Brexit referendum and US presidential elections in 2016.
He told the Media Masters podcast: "I found myself becoming increasingly angry at the half-truths and the distortions that I was seeing on social media that were trying to persuade people online of what they ought to think and want.
"And sometimes this would degenerate into downright falsehoods and deceptions, which we now know some of which were being fed to us from Russia.
"The main aim of this seemed to be to widen divisions in society and set us at each other's throats."
Social media sites are full of conspiracy theories, he warned.
He added: "You will find absurd stories linking 5G phone masts to the spread of coronavirus – which has actually led real people out there to attack phone masts in the UK.
"Some 40 such attacks have taken place.
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"There is no scientific evidence whatsoever to connect the two and no conceivable way in which they would be connected.
"And yet the conspiracy has spread."
He also cited the anti-vaccination movement, which is "spreading what are effectively lies about the desire to find a vaccine".
Sir David said it puts "all sorts of malign motives behind the Government" in hunting for a vaccine – which will "lift from our shoulders this awful cycle of lockdowns and infections and death".
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He added: "What we see and read on social media is simply not reliable information."
The former civil servant said social media appeals to people’s emotions, which is "beginning to distort the rational".
This is partly reflected in conflicts between the Government’s SAGE scientific advisers on Covid and the "hapless ministers trying to use their democratic mandate to take sensible decisions on our behalf".
He said: "It’s really very difficult to bring those two together.
"If it all becomes too emotional and we begin to forget what truth is and how we can establish a rational basis for our decisions.
"Then sadly we don’t get optimum decisions."
He also blasted group think – the way in which "you can be drawn into" conspiracies – but warned it "is a very powerful emotion".
Social media giants Facebook, Google and Twitter recently agreed to new measures with ministers to tackle vaccine misinformation.
They pledged not to profit from or promote such material.
Rebecca Stimson, Facebook’s head of UK public policy, said: "We’re working closely with governments and health authorities to stop harmful misinformation from spreading on our platforms."
Katy Minshall, head of UK public policy at Twitter, said the platform is "focused on protecting the public conversation and helping people find authoritative information".
And Google UK’s managing director Ronan Harris said: "Since the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic, we have worked relentlessly to promote authoritative content from the NHS and to fight misinformation."
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