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Social media giants urged to step up fight against coronavirus fake news

Social media giants urged to step up fight against coronavirus fake news

False claims about the coronavirus epidemic have been widely circulating on platforms including WhatsApp.

3 min read

The Culture Secretary will this week urge social media companies to do more to stop misleading information about the coronavirus from being spread online.

Oliver Dowden said tech companies needed to step up their fight against "falsehoods and rumours which could cost lives", as the Government revealed it is now challenging up to 70 incidents of so-called "fake news"  a week.

A Rapid Response Unit, run by the Cabinet Office and Downing Street, has already been set up to tackle "harmful narratives" about the outbreak, including a false claim that holding your breath for ten seconds can cure the disease.

The Government is also trying to halt the spread of scams by people posing as Whitehall officials, pointing out last week that it had sent just one mass text message to the country on social distancing guidance.

Actions to stop the spread of misleading claims can include issuing a direct rebuttal on platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, promoting reliable sources of public health advice, and working with social media firms to take down content.

But Mr Dowden vowed to tell tech companies to ramp up the fight in a fresh conservation later this week. 

The Culture Secretary said: "We need people to follow expert medical advice and stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. It is vital that this message hits home and that misinformation and disinformation which undermines it is knocked down quickly.

"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."

Mr Dowden's department said he would "be contacting social media companies this week to thank them for their good efforts to date, assess the progress made and discuss what other potential measures can be put in place to ensure accurate, honest information consistently reaches users of their platforms".

The public is meanwhile being urged to play its part in challenging false stories online by following the Government's official guidance - dubbed the 'SHARE checklist' - before passing on information.

The guidance urges citizens to make sure information "comes from a trusted source", to read beyond the headline, to check facts, to look out for doctored images and videos, and be alert to errors including bad grammar and spelling.

Paymaster general Penny Mordaunt said: "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.

"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."

The move came as Labour renewed its call for ministers to launch a national advertising campaign, including on social media, in a bid to curb hoarding of goods.

In a letter to Environment Secretary George Eustice, his Labour shadow Luke Pollard said: "Although some supermarkets and smaller shops have put in some measures, it is clear that far too many people are still panic buying."

The party is calling for a media blitz "yo amplify public health advice, provide clearer guidance on social distancing, tackle misinformation and provide assurances to people about vital issues like food availability".

And Mr Pollard said: "Ministers must not rely on the private sector to distribute these messages, Government must take the lead."

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