Society welcomes Whitehall unit to tackle coronavirus fake news on social media

Posted on: March 9, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The Society of Editors has welcomed an announcement today that a special cross-Whitehall unit has been set up to counter coronavirus-related fake news on social media.

The announcement by Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport comes after the Society of Editors warned last week that social media platforms should not be considered accurate sources of news on Covid-19 and that more needed to be done by companies to ensure that fake news and conspiracy theories do not run rampant online.

The Society has pledged to highlight fake news that impacts on the work of the mainstream media as part of its recently launched Campaign for Real News.

Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said: “The creation of the cross-Whitehall unit to identify disinformation on social media regarding the Covid-19 virus underscores where the dangers are for the public to be misinformed during this crisis. It is the mainstream media where news and information are edited that factual reports are to be found.”

It was announced this morning (9 March) that a unit has been set up to counter coronavirus-related disinformation, including from Russia and China, and that the unit intends to work closely with social media companies to rebut false and inaccurate claims about the disease.

Culture Minister Oliver Dowden (pictured) said in a statement that “defending the country from misinformation and digital interference is a top priority” for the government.

The unit will be housed in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and will look to establish the extent of false or manipulated information aimed at misleading people “either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain” the government said. The unit will look to identify false information being deliberately spread online and to establish its scope, impact and whether it needs to be actively countered.

Dowden added: “This work includes regular engagement with the social media companies, which are well placed to monitor interference and limit the spread of disinformation, and will make sure we are on the front foot to act if required.”

The intervention comes days after the Society warned that social media platforms were being used to spread fake news on the new coronavirus after a search by the Society found, amongst others, conspiracy theories linking the new disease to the roll-out of 5G in China on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube alongside posts purporting to offer cures for the virus. The Society called on platforms to do more to ensure that conspiracy theories do not run rampant and that, instead, users continue to be signposted to trusted and reputable sources of news and information such as that published by the mainstream media.

The Guardian also reported last week that a post on Twitter wrongly claiming that antibacterial hand sanitiser was useless against the virus had also racked up a quarter of a million likes and almost 100,000 retweets before it was deleted. The UK fact-checking site Full Fact has also responded to a number of false or misleading posts circulating on social media platforms such as Facebook in relation to the new COVID-19 virus.

Social media companies have issued statements on their efforts to tackle misinformation on their sites and, in the UK, searches for ‘coronavirus’ on Facebook and Twitter bring up links to official NHS guidance at the top of the pages and a YouTube search directs users to the World Health Organisation.