The British government has created a special unit to deal with online misinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

The Rapid Response Unit is being run by the Cabinet Office and Number Ten, and is attempting to tackle everything from misinformation about the virus to criminal fraudsters running phishing scams.

It forms part of a wider Counter Disinformation Cell led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and consisting of both government and tech sector representatives.

“Holding your breath for ten 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,” says paymaster general Penny Mordaunt.

“That is why government communicators are working in tandem with health bodies to promote official medical advice, rebut false narratives and clamp down on criminals seeking to exploit public concern during this pandemic.”

The new unit will coordinate with government departments on the appropriate response – from direct rebuttals on social media to working with platforms to remove harmful content and making sure that public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.

“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,” says culture secretary Oliver Dowde.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have all pledged to remove false coronavirus content, from fake cures to conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins.

The UK government is endorsing NewsGuard, which recently launched the Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, which rates sites on their credibility on the basis of nine criteria, including previous behavior, headline accuracy and willingness to publish corrections and clarifications.

In terms of scams, the unit has been investigating fake texts that purport to be from the government, as well as scam messages offering tax refunds to those that click a link.

“There is evidence of cyber criminals using a range of online techniques to trick people into handing over money or reveal sensitive information,” says the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) in a statement.

“Example scams include the targeting of people looking to buy medical supplies, those looking for health advice, and encouraging people to donate money to fake charities.”



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