Monday 9 March 2020 12:01 am

New government cyber unit to grill social media firms over coronavirus fake news

The government has set up a new cyber team to crack down on the spreading of fake news linked to the coronavirus outbreak on social media platforms.

Departments across Whitehall have been brought in to form a new unit aimed at assessing the potential extent, scope and impact of fake news.

The team will also be tasked with identifying and responding to disinformation related to the virus, also known as Covid-19.

As part of this, the unit will hold discussions with social media companies over how they monitor interference and limit the spread of disinformation.

The government said its efforts would be focused on deliberate attempts to create and spread false or manipulated information intended to mislead audiences, rather than on misinformation, which is when false information is spread inadvertently.

Officials have also hired strategic communications experts to handle the government’s response to the crisis.

“Defending the country from misinformation and digital interference is a top priority,” said Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

“As part of our ongoing work to tackle these threats we have brought together expert teams to make sure we can respond effectively should these threats be identified in relation to the spread of Covid-19.”

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A spokesperson for British fact-checking organisation Full Fact told City A.M.: “Bad information poses a serious threat to people’s health. Amid the current coronavirus outbreak, the stakes are high—members of the public depend on news outlets and political leaders when making potentially life-saving decisions.”

“We’ve already fact-checked multiple false claims on coronavirus, spread on social media as well as by print and broadcast journalists. We’re ready to work with the government over the coming weeks to help tackle bad information, as well as continue to fact check the government’s own claims.”

It comes amid a wider tightening of regulations on social media firms amid concerns about harmful material such as fake news.

The government is set to appoint Ofcom as the new online harms regulator, granting it powers to issue fines if tech firms fail to protect their users.

Facebook has laid out new measures specifically to tackle fake news about coronavirus on its platform — directing users to information from the NHS in search results and on their news feeds.

“It’s important that everyone has a place to share their experiences and talk about the outbreak, but as our community standards make clear, it’s not okay to share something that puts people in danger,” boss Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post.

Last week the UK advertising watchdog censured two face mask manufacturers for using “scaremongering” tactics to promote their products amid the health crisis.