What next for the government’s anti-fake news unit?

Written by Sam Trendall on 21 December 2018 in Features
Features

Earlier this year, the government loudly heralded the creation of the Rapid Response Unit to tackle misinformation. But two months after its initial funding ran out, it has gone quiet on its future.

Just eight months after its establishment – and two months after its initial funding ran out – uncertainty remains over the future of the government’s specialist unit to combat online misinformation, and how it is currently being funded.

The foundation of the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) was first trailed in January. In an article written for PR Week, executive director of the Government Communications Service Alex Aiken said that a priority for his organisation in 2018 was to build capability to help “deal quickly with disinformation and reclaim a fact-based public debate”.

The unit, which is part of GCS and is based jointly in the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, began operating in April, with five full-time staff and four more civil servants dedicating at least part of their time to its work. The annual cost of running the unit on this basis was pegged at £342,825, and an initial tranche of cash was provided to fund it for the duration of a six-month pilot period.

With this money due to run out the following month, in September Cabinet Office minister David Lidington was asked in parliament whether funding for the RRU would be renewed following the conclusion of the pilot. 

“The government is currently reviewing the impact of the Rapid Response Unit's work to date, and will make a decision on the future of the unit in due course,” he said.

This comment, provided to parliament on 10 September, is the last public statement any official or MP has made about the unit’s work or its future.

It is understood that the unit is still operating as normal, and that there currently are no plans to shut it down in the imminent future. But, two months after its funding expired, there is still no word on its longer-term future – nor any clarity on the terms on which it is currently being resourced, and by whom.

PublicTechnology contacted the Cabinet Office, and was told that there was no update further to Lidington’s September statement indicating that the work of the unit and its impact so far is under review. More detail is expected at some point in the new year.

Fake news and false flags
When the creation of the unit was first announced, it was widely characterised in the media as an anti-fake news operation. Since then, the government has stressed that its remit is wider than that.

In a parliamentary statement made this summer, minister for the constitution Chloe Smith said: “The Rapid Response Unit monitors news and information being shared and engaged with online, including misinformation and disinformation. It identifies emerging issues and ways to collaborate across Whitehall to respond quickly, accurately and with integrity.


Nine
Number of staff reportedly working at the RRU – five full time and four part time
 

April 2018
Month in which the RRU began operating


Six months
Length of initial pilot period for which funding was set aside


10 September
Last public update on the future of the unit, when David Lidington said it was under review. Its initial funding ran out the following month.


£342,285
Annual cost of running the unit at current staffing level


He added: “Since launching, the unit has provided round-the-clock monitoring on breaking news stories, ranging from the chemical weapons attack in Syria to domestic stories relating to the NHS and crime, working with press offices to formulate appropriate responses. We will be publishing blogs on the GCS website, outlining the progress of the unit.”

The last such update was published on the GCS site in July by Aiken.

In it, he said that “the RRU is neither a ‘rebuttal’ unit, nor is it a ‘fake news’ unit”, adding that, during the pilot period, the team has “tested the concept, evaluated the impact of specific initiatives, and examined how strongly stories are shared online”. 

During its first three months in operation, the unit uncovered “a number of false narratives” related to airstrikes on Syria, Aiken said. It had then worked to ensure that internet searches for certain terms – such as ‘false flag’ – pointed people towards “factual information on the UK’s response”.

According to the GCS chief, the RRU had also taken action to counteract the sharing on social media of various “alarmist news stories” related to data on the relative murder rates of London and New York.

“The unit activated social media content which helped to rebalance the narrative and reassure those who were most engaged with the topic,” he added.

Disinformation or misinformation?
The term ‘fake news’ has itself become increasingly contentious in Whitehall in recent months. A report published this summer by the commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee recommended that government should avoid using the term because it is “bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or agreed definition”.

The committee added: “The term has taken on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader. We recommend that the government rejects the term ‘fake news’, and instead puts forward an agreed definition of the words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’.”

In its response to the report, the government endorsed the MPs’ recommendation. It said that, in recent months, it had “sought to move away from ‘fake news’ and instead has sought to address ‘disinformation’ and wider online manipulation”.

"The term 'fake news' has taken on a variety of meanings – including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader."
DCMS committee report

The government added: “In our work, we have defined ‘disinformation’ as the deliberate creation and sharing of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain. ‘Misinformation’ refers to the inadvertent sharing of false information.”

The issue of how to combat fake news and misinformation is one that governments over the world are wrestling with. 

In January 2018 the Italian government launched an online portal through which citizens can report fake news to a division of the country’s police. The same month saw Germany introduce legislation compelling social media platforms to act swiftly to remove fake news, hate speech, and illegal content. Over the summer, French politicians put forward a private members’ bill to make the “malicious publication” of fake news a criminal offence, punishable by fines of up to €135,000.

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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