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UK anti-fake news unit dealing with up to 10 false coronavirus articles a day

Downing Street’s anti-fake news unit is dealing with up to 10 cases of misinformation about coronavirus a day as it emerged some articles are getting more views than all of those posted by the NHS put together.

Oliver Dowden, the culture and digital secretary, said the government’s new rapid response unit was looking at removing “falsehoods and rumours” about the illness that could cost lives and was trying to clamp down on phishing scams.

An article on the website WND.com that claims a US doctor cured hundreds of patients of coronavirus, despite the fact the information in the piece contradicts official guidance, received more than 160,000 Facebook engagements by UK users in a 24-hour period.

According to research carried out by NewsGuard, this was more than all of the NHS website engagements received from Facebook and Twitter during the past 30 days.

The article on the doctor, who claimed to cure people with an anti-malarial drug and zinc, was one of the top five most shared articles on Covid-19 in the UK last week.

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.”

When false narratives are identified online or on social media, the government’s rapid response unit coordinates with departments across Whitehall to find a way to tackle the content if it cannot be taken down. This can include a direct rebuttal on social media and ensuring public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.

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 the tech sector.

Dowden will be contacting social media companies again this week to discuss what other measures could be put in place to ensure accurate, honest information consistently reaches users of their platforms.

Penny Mordaunt, the paymaster general, said: “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.

“That is why government communicators are working in tandem with health bodies to promote official medical advice … 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.”

Among the examples the rebuttal unit has investigated is a fake text sent after the UK government sent a message to the public about staying at home. The second false text message in circulation claimed that some people had already been fined.

A series of scams purporting to be from HMRC offering tax refunds also appeared online, including doctored screenshots of official government website Gov.uk.

The unit asked the telecoms industry to block offending text message aggregators and requested removal of malicious content from internet providers. HMRC digital teams also used social media to alert the public about the scam.

WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts widely circulated since the outbreak began include false medical advice claiming to be from “Stanford Hospital Board”. This advice included drinking or gargling water to “wash the virus down into the stomach, where acid could kill it”.

The unit asked the Department of Health and Social Care to create and share posts on Facebook and Twitter to rebut false medical advice and direct the public to official guidance.

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