As the fight to contain the spread of COVID-19 continues, many say that the government is battling against two fronts: the pandemic and an infodemic.
While tensions rise, citizens desperately seek answers to their COVID-19 questions. Government officials have subsequently raised concerns about the spread of misinformation. Others have raised fears that this is “as dangerous as the virus,” due some of the sources purporting false medical advice.
In response to the wave of misinformation, the UK Government has launched an anti-fake news unit, with an aim to remove “falsehoods and rumours”. However as the Rapid Response Unit moves in, civil liberties groups have warned that a suppression of free speech will minimise trust in the government. On top of this, they suggest that such “blanket, automated mechanisms” may in fact contribute to a repression of truth.
On 30 March, the government announced that its specialist Rapid Response Unit, operating from the Cabinet Office, was working to “combat” misinformation and “harmful narratives” about COVID-19. It reported that the unit was tackling around 5 to 10 incidents of misinformation a day.
Speaking about the importance of citizens following expert medical advice, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said in a statement: “It is vital that this message hits home and that misinformation and disinformation which undermines it is knocked down quickly”.
Social media researchers found that there are a range of themes relating to COVID-19 misinformation. This includes, speculation surrounding the origin of the virus, minimisation of the virus’s severity, promotion of fake cures, and race-baiting.
A report by Ofcom also found that from a survey of 2000 internet users, almost half of adults had come across misinformation about COVID-19. A further 49% received their information from social media sites.
Aware of the potentially damaging effects of this, the government’s Counter-Disinformation Cell and Rapid Response Unit are now working with social media companies. Through this they seek to remove ‘harmful content’ and publish rebuttals clarifying the truth about the virus. Alongside this, the government also relaunched its “Don’t Feed The Beast” campaign.
Meanwhile, an industry collaboration launched by the BBC and others in 2019, called the Trusted News Initiative, is extending its efforts to: “Identifying false and potentially harmful coronavirus information by putting in place a shared alert system”. The group is made up of a range of partners including the BBC, Facebook, Google/YouTube, Twitter, Microsoft, AFP, Reuters, European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, amongst others.
While recognising the importance of public safety and circulation of accurate information, campaign groups have raised issue with the potential removal of ‘lawful content’.
In a joint letter to the Secretary of State for Culture, Big Brother Watch, Index on Censorship, Open Rights Group and Adam Smith Institute, urged the Rapid Response Unit and Counter-Disinformation Cell to be fully transparent in their actions. The groups have drawn attention to the ‘profound’ implications that the removal of lawful content, and social media censorship has on human rights in the UK, specifically in relation to Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998.
The groups uphold freedom of expression as a ‘vital democratic right’ and accurately note that this right has never been: “Restricted to the expression of views that are rational, desirable or proven to be true”. Subsequently, through the introduction of both the Rapid Response Unit, and implementation of the Trusted News Initiative, the government risks transforming itself into an Orwellian styled Ministry of Truth that blocks citizens from free forums of thought.
The groups have also argued that when governments and organisations attempt to censor information, this itself can harm public health efforts. Notebly, Nick Clegg ex-Liberal Democrats Leader and current VP of Global Affairs and Communications for Facebook (member of the Trusted News Initiative) has upheld the WHO as the most trusted source of information concerning the virus.
However, recent claims that senior leadership in the organisation is bowing to China instead of exposing its disinformation efforts, has seriously undermined its credibility. This may even create more sources of misinformation which may hold up WHO’s reluctance to condemn China as proof of its untrustworthiness
Equally others argue that there are more impactful ways of combating ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theorists, that don’t involve censoring them. Challenging sources that peddle misinformation is more likely to combat its transmission. Through hushing them into corners and locking the door, mistruths are more likely to go unchallenged, and then spread and mutate.
Another hugely concerning element to this is the gagging orders issued by NHS organisations across the country. Many NHS staff have been threatened with disciplinary action if they dare to speak out about lack of PPE. Speaking about this Dr Samantha Batt Rawden, DAUK’s President said: “At this time when we desperately need every single doctor on the frontline, some have had their careers threatened, and at least two doctors have been sent home from work. This is unacceptable. Doctors have a moral duty to make their concerns regarding Covid-19 public if these cannot be resolved locally”.
Along with concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression, others have pointed to the hypocrisy of the government generating its own misleading information.
Outraged by the government’s lack of transparency concerning the UK’s COVID-19 death toll, Professor John Ashton, former Regional Director of Public Health England, accused the government of spreading falsehoods.
Speaking to Sky News, Professor Ashton said: “At the moment, a lot of what’s going on in these briefings is coming very close to lies and we must prevent this from happening at all costs”. He added: “It may be one and a half times what we’ve got…it may even be twice as many…you know if I was to say well if it’s 10, let’s call it 20….is my truth any better than their truth in this?” And, he is not alone with accusations that the government has spread misinformation about the death toll in the UK.
Richard Murphy, Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City, University of London commented: “The scale of under-reporting of deaths is staggering”. This was supported by Chris Giles from the Financial Times who claimed on 7 April that the figures are potentially 80% too low.
Further misinformation from the Health Secretary came when he claimed that herd immunity was never considered a possible plan of action. A document seen by The Guardian suggests otherwise. The planning document, used by NHSX and Faculty, contained a computer simulation detailing the impact of targeted herd immunity.
Similarly, Michael Gove was found to have made untrue claims that the roll out of testing was being hindered by a lack of ‘chemical reagents’ for testing kits. This claim was discredited by the Chemicals Industry Association.
Meanwhile, MP Nadine Dorris, has urged journalists to stop asking for an exit plan and expressed that society will have to “adapt” to “full lockdown”. She has said that a release won’t happen until a vaccine is found. Ministers are reportedly under order to not discuss an exit strategy. It has been revealed by government sources that ministers and their advisers currently have no exit plan. This contrasts sharply with the approaches of other European countries, such as Germany, France and Denmark, who have outlined a lockdown exit plan.
Ultimately, it appears that through creating an air of mistrust and placing restrictions on information sharing, the government itself is potentially contributing to the spread of misinformation. When citizens cannot rely on their government to deliver transparency and truth, they will look elsewhere out of distrust. These measures should subsequently be proportional and indeed time limited, without eroding citizen’s right to freedom of expression if they are to be effective and just.