Alarmed that quack cures and myths about coronavirus are getting more traction in social media than official medical advice, the Boris Johnson government has deployed specialist units across departments to crack down and prevent fake news spreading.
Penny Mordaunt, paymaster-general said on Monday: “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”.
The drive to counter false narratives is coordinated by a group called the Rapid Response Unit operating from No 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, tackling harmful narratives online – from purported ‘experts’ issuing dangerous misinformation to criminal fraudsters running phishing scams.
The unit is engaging with social media platforms and with disinformation specialists from civil society and academia, to establish a comprehensive overview of the extent, scope and impact of disinformation related to coronavirus.
To help spot false information, officials ask people to use a SHARE checklist: ‘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’.
Noting that some countries “routinely use disinformation as a policy tool,” officials said the government is also stepping up efforts to share its assessments on coronavirus disinformation with international partners.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said: “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”.
“When false narratives are identified, the government’s Rapid Response Unit coordinates with departments across Whitehall to deploy the appropriate response. This 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”.