The government has confirmed that it is to relaunch its ‘Don’t Feed the Beast’ campaign in an effort to tackle the spread of coronavirus misinformation online.
The public information campaign aims to empower people to question what they read online and to not share misleading content. The announcement comes days after a sub-committee of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport called on the public to flag up disinformation that it comes across online.
The government has confirmed that specialist units are now operating to combat misinformation about coronavirus and five to ten incidents are being identified and tackled each day. In a piece in the Telegraph this morning, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden warned that misinformation on social media could cost lives.
The unit is one of the teams feeding into the wider Counter Disinformation Cell led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, made up of experts from across government and in the tech sector.
The Society of Editors has previously warned against the volume of coronavirus misinformation available on social media platforms and urged the public not to consider the networks as accurate sources of news on the coronavirus.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “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.
“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 government confirmed that its Rapid Response Unit, operating from within the Cabinet Office and No10, is tackling a range of harmful narratives online – from purported ‘experts’ issuing dangerous misinformation to criminal fraudsters running phishing scams.
When false narratives are identified, the 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.
The Culture Secretary will be contacting social media companies this week 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.
Penny Mordaunt, Paymaster General said: “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.
“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.”
As part of the ‘Don’t Feed the Beast campaign’ the public is being encouraged to help stop the spread of potentially dangerous or false stories circulating online by following official SHARE government guidance. This includes basic but essential advice such as checking the source of a story, reading beyond the headline and analysing the facts before sharing.
The government also announced over the weekend that it had struck a deal with telecommunications companies to ensure that data allowance caps on current fixed broadband services will be removed to help vulnerable people stay connected through the pandemic.
Julian Knight, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee said last week that tech companies should face penalties if they are not responsible for harmful content available online.
He said. “The deliberate spreading of false information about COVID-19 could have serious consequences. Much of this is happening on social media through private channels, putting the onus on friends and family to identify whether the information they are seeing is misleading.
“There have been some shocking examples in recent weeks and we want people to send us what they’ve come across.
“We will call in social media companies as soon as the House returns 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. Tech giants who allow this to proliferate on their platforms are morally responsible for tackling disinformation and should face penalties if they don’t.”
Praise for newspaper home deliveries
The role of the media has also been recognised by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson who has highlighted the importance of newspaper home delivery during the outbreak.
He said: “It is really important that people are able to access local news to gain an understanding of what is going on in their area.
“Local newspapers are absolutely vital when it comes to reporting on some of the key messages that we all need to take on board so we can tackle this virus.
“I hope some clarity and guidance can be issued to make sure it is understood that newspaper deliveries can – and should – still take place.
“In order to stop the spread of this virus, what we all want to see is less people leaving the house and having to go to the shops. Home deliveries are an important part of this battle to keep people self-isolating.”
Nick Clegg: Facebook taking steps against Covid-19 Fake News here
The Society’s Executive Director Ian Murray asks whether it is time to call-out the public for sharing Covid-19 misinformation online here