The government’s Covid-19 coronavirus anti-disinformation Rapid Response Unit is ramping up its activities as the UK enters its second week of lockdown, with culture secretary Oliver Dowden set to meet with social media platforms later this week to ask for further assistance.
The unit, which operates from within the Cabinet Office and Number 10 alongside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), is currently identifying up to 70 incidents a week – ranging from purported experts issuing dangerous misinformation, to cyber criminals running phishing scams.
It is now relaunching its successful Don’t Feed the Beast public information campaign to empower people to question what they read online.
“We need people to follow expert medical advice and stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. It is vital that this message hits home and that misinformation and disinformation which undermines it is knocked down quickly,” said Dowden.
“We’re working with social media companies, and I’ll be pressing them this week for further action to stem the spread of falsehoods and rumours which could cost lives.”
The unit is also working with disinformation specialists from civil society and academia to establish a comprehensive picture of the extent, scope and impact of coronavirus-related lies.
Dowden said he would be discussing further measures that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can put in place to ensure that only accurate information goes viral.
Currently, when false narratives are identified, the unit is empowered to coordinate across Whitehall to deploy appropriate responses, which could include direct rebuttals, removing harmful content through collaboration with social media platforms, and making sure public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.
“Holding your breath for 10 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,” said paymaster general Penny Mordaunt.
“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.”
“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,” she said.
The government set out its Share checklist to help people identify whether or not something they have seen online is misleading or fake;
- Source – make sure information comes from a trusted source.
- Headline – always read beyond the headline.
- Analyse – check the facts.
- Retouched – does the image or video look as though it has been doctored?
- Error – look out for bad grammar and spelling.
The coronavirus pandemic is currently by some margin the largest source of cyber security threats out there, and besides fake news and quack ‘cures’ you must also be alert to threats such as phishing, and be conscious of the security risks of remote working.