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Downing Street and DCMS raise concerns over state-backed dissemination of disinformation

Posted on: April 7, 2020 by Claire Meadows

Both the office of the Prime Minister and the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (DCMS) have raised concerns about the prevalence of state-backed news organisations and the dissemination of false Covid-19 news.

Yesterday Downing Street was forced to criticise Russian “disinformation”, after a state-run news agency claimed Boris Johnson would soon be put on a ventilator because of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the chair of the DCMS select committee, Julian Knight MP, highlighted his disquiet at Russian-backed news organisations disseminating “false narratives” around Covid-19. He also accused Chinese-backed news organisations of similar actions.

The intervention of No 10 yesterday came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson responded to claims in the foreign media about his hospital care following his admission on Sunday with what has been described as “persistent symptoms of Covid-19”.

Reported by Sky News, Russia’s RIA-Novosti had reported on Sunday that Mr Johnson would be put on a ventilator, attributing the claim to a “source close to the leadership” of the NHS.

The PM’s spokesman was yesterday forced to deny he claims and said that the statement was false and example of state-backed inaccuracies.

The spokesperson said: “That is disinformation. Our specialist government units have seen a rise in false and misleading narratives since the coronavirus pandemic started.

“It’s vital that any disinformation is knocked down quickly.”

The issue of state-backed disinformation was also yesterday raised by DCMS select committee chair Julian Knight MP.

In a letter to Ofcom’s new Chief Executive Dame Melanie Dawes, Knight also expressed concern that Russian and Chinese state-backed news organisations are contributing to the dissemination of inaccurate narratives around Covid-19.

Writing to Dawes, Knight said that both Chinese and Russian-backed news groups had been linked to the dissemination of disinformation in the UK.

He said: “I am writing in this instance to raise concerns about the spread of disinformation and misinformation during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. As you know, we have recently put out a call for the public to send us examples of false narratives they see online. However, several recent reports have noted that Chinese state-backed news organisations, such as Global China Television Network, have contributed by disseminating false narratives, such as disputing the place of origin of the novel coronavirus.

“We are also concerned that conspiracy theories spread by Press TV can be spread through social media, circumventing the loss of its UK broadcasting licence. The comes in the context of four investigations being launched into CGTN last year over allegations of breaches to the broadcasting code triggered by your monitoring team regarding coverage of the protests in Hong Kong. Ofcom also fined RT £200,000 for serious and repeated failures to comply with broadcasting rules on impartiality and lost its appeal against the decision in the High Court last week.”

Knight called on the regulator to clarify what work it is doing to monitor and regulate particular broadcast media organisations and investigate instances where there may be failures to comply with broadcasting rules around the Covid-19 crisis. He also asked what role Ofcom currently has in identifying organisations that might pose a risk in spreading or amplifying disinformation or misinformation about Covid-19. 

The committee’s intervention comes as Ofcom announced last week that it would be prioritising cases linked to coronavirus and broadcasters were being asked to be mindful of giving airtime to false health advice around Covid-19.

The DCMS Select Committee is appealing for members of the public to send examples of disinformation in its own inquiry into Disinformation on COVID-19 in work by the DCMS Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation. It has already announced its intention to call in social media companies.