UK ‘fake news’ unit wins permanent funding

By on 29/01/2019
Correcting the internet: UK unit works to rebut 'fake news' and misleading reporting (Image courtesy: Pixel2013/Pixabay).

A UK government unit that works to tackle ‘fake news’ and disinformation has been given the go-ahead to continue on a permanent basis.

According to PRWeek, the Cabinet Office confirmed the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) is “continuing operations” with funding now in place.

Alex Aiken, executive director of the Government Communications Service, told PRWeek: “Last week I set out three government communication priorities for the year ahead – raising standards, strengthening our democracy and reassuring communities. The work of the Rapid Response Unit directly supports these priorities and highlights the need to continue our efforts in tackling disinformation.”

Rapid rebuttal rises again

In a statement to Parliament last summer, Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith explained that the job of the RRU was to monitor “news and information being shared and engaged with online, including misinformation and disinformation.” Its work enabled communications teams across Whitehall to “respond quickly, accurately and with integrity.”

She said: “Since launching, the unit has provided round the clock monitoring on breaking news stories, ranging from the chemical weapons attack in Syria to domestic stories relating to the NHS and crime, working with press offices to formulate appropriate responses.”

The team – of five full-time staff and four senior officials working on a part-time basis – was initially set up as a six-month pilot in April 2018. The unit sits within the Government Communications Service and operates jointly from the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, with an annual running cost of £342,825 ($450,000).

Calling out the lies

In a blog post published earlier this month, RRU data journalist Oliver Marsh laid out the work the team had been doing over the past year.

He said the most viral public-sector related article of 2018 was ‘Urgent national frozen veg recall after nine dead’, which the team identified as misinformation: whilst there had been a specific concern about food poisoning, those figures covered the number of deaths across Europe over a number of years. The team responded by sharing “content from the Food Standards Agency on government social media channels, to ensure reliable information was visible to the public.”

The blog post also revealed that the team uses machine learning to track the public’s changing views on contentious subjects such as Brexit. “Using machine learning, our analysts located recurring themes in Brexit-related discussion and examined how they changed over time”, he wrote.

Brexit was also a popular topic covered by ‘alternative news outlets’ such as Breitbart. Part of the unit’s remit is to monitor the types of stories these sites are sharing, and in 2018 crime and Brexit came out on top.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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