Government and MPs ask for public support in fight against coronavirus fake news

Select committee and ministers ask for citizens to be on the lookout for false information spread online

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Cabinet ministers and a parliamentary select committee have asked for public vigilance and support in helping combat the spread of false information about coronavirus.

The government today announced the anti-fake news Rapid Response Unit established in the Cabinet Office in 2018 is currently working with departments to respond to about 70 instances of “false information” about the pandemic being identified each week.

This includes misleading advice shared by self-styled – but unqualified – experts, as well as cybercrime campaigns seeking to take advantage of the outbreak.

Government’s response to these incidents “can include a direct rebuttal on social media, working with platforms to remove harmful content and ensuring public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources”.

The public will also be asked to be on the lookout for falsehoods being shared online, with the government relaunching its ‘Don’t Feed the Beast’ campaign next week. The public-information drive will encourage citizens to assess information against the five-point ‘Share’ checklist.

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This guidance advises people to check the ‘source’ of information, ask if the ‘headline’ is misleading, ‘analyse’ the veracity of the facts, consider whether the images used have been ‘retouched’ and whether the text contains spelling and grammatical ‘errors’.

The parliamentary DCMS Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation is also asking citizens to flag up examples of what they believe to be the deliberate dissemination of false information regarding coronavirus. These will be considered by MPs on the committee during a newly launched investigation into the matter. The inquiry will include evidence sessions with social media companies, who will be asked to attend hearings as soon as parliament is able to reopen.

Committee chair Julian Knight indicated that the firms in question would be required “to explain what they’re doing to deal with harmful content like this to help give people the reassurances they need at this difficult time”.

He said: “Tech giants who allow this to proliferate on their platforms are morally responsible for tackling disinformation and should face penalties if they don’t.”

The government has also provided what seems to be a little more clarity on the discrete roles of the Rapid Response Unit and a team in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport which was recently “reactivated” with the remit to bring together teams from across Whitehall that could map the spread of disinformation and coordinate a cross-government response.

The press release issued today indicated that the RRU – which it indicated is now jointly housed within the Cabinet Office and 10 Downing Street – will act to lead a speedy response to false information. As such, it will be one of a number of teams throughout the civil service reporting into the DCMS unit, which has now been christened the Counter Disinformation Cell.

In addition to officials from across government, the cell will also contain experts from the tech industry. Over the coming days and weeks, it will engage with “social media platforms and disinformation specialists from civil society and academia to establish a comprehensive overview of the extent, scope and impact of disinformation related to coronavirus”.

DCMS secretary of state Oliver Dowden will this week contact social networks “to thank them for their good efforts to date, assess the progress made and discuss what other potential measures can be put in place to ensure accurate, honest information consistently reaches users of their platforms”.

Paymaster general Penny Mordaunt reiterated the call for public vigilance and support.

 “Holding your breath for ten seconds is not a test for coronavirus and gargling water for 15 seconds is not a cure – this is the kind of false advice we have seen coming from sources claiming to be medical experts,” she said. “That is why government communicators are working in tandem with health bodies to promote official medical advice, rebut false narratives and clamp down on criminals seeking to exploit public concern during this pandemic.”

Mordaunt added: “But the public can also help with this effort, so today we implore them to take some simple steps before sharing information online, such as always reading beyond the headline and scrutinising the source.”


Sam Trendall

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