Government asked to explain delay in creating virus disinformation response unit

MPs have questioned the Government’s delay in taking action to tackle the spread of disinformation around coronavirus, suggesting it took too long to set up a response unit.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Sub-Committee on Online Harms and Disinformation said it wanted to know why it took the Government two months to create a specialist team to fight disinformation.

Last week, the Government announced the specialist Counter Disinformation Unit, which it said would be working with social media platforms to monitor and remove disinformation and conspiracy theories linked to Covid-19.

DCMS Committee chairman Julian Knight has written to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to ask about the creation of the unit, as well as how it is being resourced and staffed.

“We’ve known since January about deliberate attempts to spread fear and falsehoods on social media about coronavirus, with potentially serious outcomes,” he said.

“We support the Government’s decision to tackle disinformation and misinformation about Covid-19 at this critical time but question why it has taken so long for ministers to set this up.

“We want reassurance that the Counter Disinformation Unit will be working closely with social media companies to ensure that people receive vitally important and accurate information and can trust what they see online.”

Social media firms, the Government and the NHS have all warned about disinformation and conspiracy theories linked to the virus online, including misleading adverts and posts promoting homeopathic treatments which claim to cure the illness.

A Twitter account posing as a hospital which posted inaccurate information about coronavirus cases was also reported by the health service and removed by Twitter.

In his letter to the Culture Secretary, Mr Knight also asked the Government to explain how it is working with social media and fact-checking organisations to identify disinformation, and if there are plans to make the unit permanent for future public emergencies.