Government plan online coronavirus misinformation 'crackdown'

30 March 2020, 00:01

Fraud expert's warning about coronavirus scams

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The UK government is planning a "crackdown" on the spread of online coronavirus misinformation and fraudsters.

Specialist units will be set up to tackle "false and misleading narratives about coronavirus" to help the public obtain the right information about the disease.

A government statement said providing people with the correct information would help people protect themselves and save lives.

It is reported that five to ten incidents are being identified and tackled every day, which has led ministers to urge the public to think before they share information on social media.

The Rapid Response Unit, which will operate from within the Cabinet Office and No10, will tackle harmful online Covid-19 narratives, such as supposed 'experts' issuing dangerous misinformation, or fraudsters and scammers running phishing emails or posts.

There are already up to 70 incidents occurring every week.

Some of the examples include receiving false texts from the government, an HMRC refund scam, false medical advice from someone purporting to be Stanford Hospital Board, and false images circulating on WhatsApp.

The government are setting up a rapid response unit to tackle online misinformation
The government are setting up a rapid response unit to tackle online misinformation. Picture: NCA

The government will re-launch a 'Don't Feed the Beast' public information campaign next week which will offer people more information on what they read online.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said it was vital the message reaches people and resonates with them in order to tackle misinformation and disinformation.

“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.”

The Rapid Response Unit will be able to either offer rebuttals to the posts online, forcibly remove the information from social media platforms, or ensure public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.

It is part of a wider team led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and it is made up of experts from across the government and the tech sector.

Penny Mordaunt, Paymaster General, offered an example of one of the false pieces of information circulating around online.

“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," she said.

“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.

“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.”

Fraudsters have been using the Covid-19 lockdown and pandemic to scam people out of their money and personal data.

The National Crime Agency previously warned people to remain vigilant of fraudsters and scammers during the coronavirus outbreak.

Criminals are trying to "rush and panic" people into buying items online and offering them deals that are "too good to be true".

Yoav Keren, CEO of Brandshield, a company that provides cyber solutions, told LBC News that hackers are exploiting people while they spend more time online during the pandemic.

He said: "They are doing all kind of fraudulent activities online, such as phishing sites, fraud sites or counterfeit sales sites."

A five-step SHARE checklist has been released to help people identify false information - people should check the Source, Headline, Analyse, Retouched and Error.