Case studies: tackling disinformation

On this page, there are 2 case studies.

Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)

In March 2020, the government’s specialist units combatting coronavirus disinformation identified a spike in false online narratives blaming 5G as the pandemic’s source.

Baseless theories were gaining traction on social media, including from celebrities, and this was leading to phone masts being set ablaze and telecoms workers facing abuse.

DCMS Comms instantly responded with official rebuttals on social media. Ministers were stood up to debunk the claims, with Michael Gove calling it ‘dangerous nonsense’ in the daily press conference on 4 April, following which our data showed search interest in the topic dropped.

We then landed a succession of media stories demonstrating we were working both to reduce attacks on the ground and remove the trigger content online.

We urged social media platforms to move faster in taking down COVID-19 disinformation with words from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden briefed to the media. In response, the platforms updated their terms of service to better address this content and we created routes for telecoms companies to escalate unacceptable content with them directly for removal.

We set up a roundtable with the firms and used it to secure an agreement from Twitter to link to official government advice at the top of its search when people looked for 5G conspiracy theories. We briefed this move to the media – promoting the work of government, boosting relationships with Twitter, and making sure the public were informed.

Relaunching the ‘Don’t Feed The Beast’ campaign, we prompted people to question the sources of what they read online before sharing. Evaluation showed one in five adults recognised the campaign and cut-through of the motivation behind disinformation increased. Ofcom stats also showed that our efforts helped increase the percentage of people visiting a fact-checker website and the proportion of people finding it hard to determine what was true online fell.

We also worked with the Minister for Digital Infrastructure and Minister for Housing and Local Communities on a note to local authorities arming them with the tools to fight fake 5G fake news. We briefed this to the media and landed almost a hundred national and regional news stories thanks to the strong language worked into the letter.

The result of our efforts meant that within weeks the rate of attacks in this worrying phenomenon plateaued and then dropped off completely.

Jose Riera, DCMS.

Department for International Trade (DIT) – Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)

“The CPTPP might sound like an official has accidentally leant on their computer keyboard…”

The opening of the BBC’s Trade Correspondent’s “explainer” summed up the challenge of our announcement of the UK’s intention to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Before we could expect the public to support this decision, we needed them to understand what it was, as well break the news across 11 countries already signed up to the trade bloc.

Our first hurdle was communicating internally across 8 different time zones to keep teams updated on messaging and timing because we wanted the story to break simultaneously. A regular meeting time for 07:00 GMT was set – an early start in the UK but a late finish for our colleagues in New Zealand where it was 20:00 locally.

We recognised early media engagement would help cut through the pandemic-focussed news agenda, so we held media background briefings.

This ensured that the story cut through: the BBC broke it with a newsflash across digital and TV; two homepage stories; and a package on BBC Breakfast and Radio 2 Jeremy Vine interview.

We sought permission in advance to use interview clips on our social channels and smashed our impressions target by over 2,500%.

Widespread coverage in the Sunday papers and the Secretary of State doing the morning media round, led to CPTPP trending in Twitter’s top 10.

We also met our target of landing the story in every CPTPP country, with over 100 pieces of coverage in South East Asia alone.

Harriet Waldron and Claire Thornton, DIT.