In Brief

How the government is targeting coronavirus misinformation

Dedicated Whitehall unit set up to counter rumours and fake news

The NHS says it is working with web giants including Google and Facebook on ways to help promote “good advice” and counter misinformation during the coronavirus outbreak

The health service wants to ensure its guidance about the disease is to appear at the top of internet search results in an attempt to combat myths and rumours about the infection.

As concern over fake news and conspiracy theories grows, searches for “coronavirus” on Google, Facebook and YouTube will now promote information from the health service or the World Health Organization.

The NHS said it had convinced Twitter to delete an account claiming to be a hospital and spreading false information. It is also concerned against homeopaths promoting alternative treatments online.

A dedicated cross-Whitehall unit has been set up to counter coronavirus-related misinformation, including from Russia and China.

The unit is setting out to “identify false information being deliberately spread online and to establish its scope, impact and whether it needs to be actively countered”, The Guardian says.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, said defending the country from misinformation and digital interference was a top priority.

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS’s efforts meant the public would receive accurate health information, “which is more crucial than ever as we continue our response to coronavirus”.

Last week a senior US State Department official, Lea Gabrielle, told Congress that Moscow was behind “swarms of online, false personas” spreading coronavirus falsehoods and that the “entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation is at play”.

According to The New York Times, online rumours include the suggestion that Taiwan was covering up virus deaths and that Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who now runs a philanthropic organization, was behind the spread of the virus. 

“I see misinformation about the coronavirus everywhere,” said Austin Chiang, a gastroenterologist at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. “Some people are panicking, and looking to magical cures, and other people are spreading conspiracies.”

However, reports CNN, in China there is “mounting anger” among citizens about what they see as heavy-handed government censorship, with unpleasant truths written off as “rumours” and truth-tellers threatened or handed punishment.

Several conspiracy theories have gained traction online. One such theory proposes that the coronavirus is actually a bio-weapon engineered by the CIA as a way to wage war on China.

Others insist that the UK and US governments introduced the coronavirus as a way to make money from a potential vaccine.

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