Coronavirus: Government issues disinformation warning as extremists and conspiracy theorists exploit crisis

'The deliberate spreading of false information about Covid-19 could have serious consequences,' MP warns

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 27 March 2020 08:23 GMT
Idris Elba blasts coronavirus conspiracy theories

The government has issued a warning over the spread of disinformation on coronavirus as conspiracy theorists, extremists and fraudsters exploit the pandemic.

Fake medical advice and dangerous “cures” are being shared widely on social networks, alongside fake videos being used to target racial and religious minorities.

The digital secretary, Oliver Dowden, said the government was “monitoring the extent and impact of misinformation”.

“We must remain absolutely vigilant to inaccurate stories about coronavirus being spread online,” he added.

“I urge the industry to play their part too and act fast to stem the spread of misinformation on coronavirus on their platforms. But we can also all take action now by following these guidelines to tackle fake news in our everyday online lives.”

New guidance issued to the public on Friday urges them not to block and report social media accounts sharing misinformation, and privately message friends and family members who have been taken in.

The “Don’t Spread the Virus” campaign advises people not to share or comment on falsehoods, to avoid spreading them further.

The advice was drawn up by the Centre for Countering Digital (CCDH), a not-for-profit organisation, which urged people to share official medical advice produced by the NHS and government instead.

CEO Imran Ahmed said: “Social media is currently awash with conspiracy theories, fake news, and incorrect medical advice about coronavirus and Covid-19.

“Some of it is produced by extremists seeking to undermine faith in government and experts, some by grifters seeking to sell false cures and some are just sadly misinformed and think they’re doing the right thing by spreading the wrong advice.”

Government-backed advice issued over coronavirus-related misinformation being spread onlince

Recent examples include a Twitter video claiming to show Muslim worshippers in London violating the lockdown with a group prayer.

It was viewed thousands of times and shared by far-right figures including Tommy Robinson, before being exposed as a fake post using unrelated footage from before the coronavirus outbreak.

Many extremist groups have attempted to capitalise on coronavirus, with several attempting to blame ethnic, religious and national groups for the outbreak.

White nationalists have been sharing fake videos claiming to show black people stealing food or rioting.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have been denying the severity or even the existence of coronavirus, calling for people to ignore medical advice and spreading their own fake “cures”.

Officials fear the posts will stop people from complying with social distancing measures, put people’s health at risk and fuel hate crime, following a spike in attacks on people of Chinese appearance at the start of the outbreak.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, told The Independent: “The internet is an invaluable resource for passing on this information, so it is more important than ever that we only share clear and accurate information.

“Social media companies must take responsibility for limiting the spread of inaccurate information, but we all have a part to play if we are to ensure public safety, protect our amazing NHS and ultimately help save lives.”

A parliamentary committee on online harms and disinformation launched an inquiry into coronavirus misinformation on Thursday.

It will hold hearings with social media companies to demand answers on what is being “done to tackle deliberate attempts to present false narratives”.

Committee chair Julian Knight MP said: “The deliberate spreading of false information about Covid-19 could have serious consequences.

“Much of this is happening on social media through private channels, putting the onus on friends and family to identify whether the information they are seeing is misleading.

“There have been some shocking examples in recent weeks … tech giants who allow this to proliferate on their platforms are morally responsible for tackling disinformation and should face penalties if they don’t.”

It comes after warnings from police over “phishing” emails being sent out by scammers to corrupt computers and steal people’s details.

Many reported scams are designed to look like official communications from the government, NHS or World Health Organisation, and trick people into clicking on malicious links.

People are advised not to click on links or attachments before verifying that the sender is genuine.

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