How we are fighting the spread of false coronavirus information online

Headshot of Subhajit Banerjee, author of the blog post.
Subhajit Banerjee

During World War 2, posters reminded the public that Careless Talk Costs Lives. It’s just as true today – and thanks to the internet, social media and messaging apps, careless talk spreads even further and faster.

That’s where the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) comes in. We’re based in the Cabinet Office and No10, and on Covid-19 we have stepped up our efforts significantly to identify and counter harmful narratives online – from ‘experts’ issuing dangerous health misinformation to fraudsters running phishing scams.

Up to 70 incidents a week, often false narratives containing multiple misleading claims, are being identified and resolved.

Working with departments across Government, we deploy a range of techniques to combat false narratives, including:

  • Direct rebuttal on social media working with platforms to remove harmful content ensuring public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.
  • Our work feeds 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 Cell engages with social media platforms and with disinformation specialists from civil society and academia.

The Government is also sharing its assessment of disinformation with international partners to better understand the global picture. Working collaboratively has already helped make the UK safer, providing ourselves and our allies with a better understanding of how different techniques are used as part of malicious information operations – and how to protect against those techniques more effectively.

Working with citizens

We are also asking the public to help us. The Government is running the Don’t Feed The Beast campaign which gives the public five easy steps to follow to identify whether information may be misleading:

  • 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

Stopping the spread of dangerous misinformation can prevent crimes and save lives. As our colleagues, we ask you to help us by watching out for false information and sharing our responses.

Here are some examples of the RRU rebutting false narratives:

Text-related scams

After the UK government sent a text message to the public about staying at home, the RRU was made aware of reports of a second false text message in circulation which claimed that some people had already been fined.

The RRU and No10 worked together to issue a tweet from the No10 Press Office account to clarify that only one text had been sent out by government and that any others claiming to be from the government were false. This was further amplified by government social media channels.

HMRC refund scam

A series of scams purporting to be from HMRC offering tax refunds appeared online, including doctored screenshots of GOV.UK.

The RRU quickly informed the specialist teams in HMRC that tackle this type of fraud. They stepped up their existing efforts, including proactively engaging with the press on guidance, working with the telecoms industry to block offending text message aggregators and requesting removal of malicious content from Internet Service Providers. HMRC digital teams also used social media to alert the public about the scam.

False medical advice claiming to be from ‘Stanford Hospital Board’

The RRU identified misleading posts circulating on Facebook and via Whatsapp messages claiming to have advice on fighting coronavirus from Stanford Hospital Board. This advice included drinking or gargling water every 15 minutes to ‘wash the virus down into the stomach, where acid could kill it’ and holding your breath for ten seconds as a test for coronavirus.

The RRU made the Department for Health and Social Care aware of these posts. RRU and DHSC agreed that there was a need to make the public aware that this advice was not accurate and remind them that they should seek official guidance from NHS pages. DHSC created and shared posts on Facebook and Twitter to rebut the false medical advice and direct the public to official guidance.