Cabinet Office to launch ‘fake news’ rapid response team

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 22 January 2018 in News

Government Communications Service director Alex Aiken says social media team will ‘reclaim a fact-based public debate’

Government wants to build up its social media capability. Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

The Cabinet Office plans to introduce a new team of social media experts to combat the spread of fake news online.

Alex Aiken, the executive director for government communications, said that changes to the way news is shared have presented new challenges for government communicators, who must react while continuing to be a reliable source of information.

He said one of the aims of the Government Communication Service for 2018 was to “build a rapid response social media capability to deal quickly with disinformation and reclaim a fact-based public debate with a new team to lead this work in the Cabinet Office”.


Writing last week in PR Week, Aiken outlined eight objectives for the GCS in 2018, including dealing with the spread of “disinformation”.

“We are seeing changes in the way information is being processed and shared – a tech savvy but disparate audience hungry for information and influenced by a small number of dominant opinion formers in the public eye,” he said.

“The real test for government communications is being nimble enough to respond to the many challenges thrown at it while remaining a reliable source of information.”

As well as building social media capability, Aiken’s goals for 2018 included challenging the declining trust in institutions through honest, relevant and responsive government campaigns; creating engaging and shareable content; better use of data; and updating guidance on behavioural science techniques.

He said the GCS would be implementing a new approach to strategic communication, part of the GCS Improvement programme, in June.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The government is committed to tackling false information and the Government Communications Service plays a crucial role in this.

“Digital communications are constantly evolving and we are looking at ways to meet the challenging media landscape by harnessing the power of new technology for good.”

The move comes after environment secretary Michael Gove in November criticised “the way in which social media corrupts and distorts” reporting and political decision-making, after an article in the Independent incorrectly claimed that Conservative MPs had voted against including a clause in the EU Withdrawal Bill that recognised that animals are sentient beings.

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Tamsin Rutter
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Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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Submitted on 23 January, 2018 - 07:33
How is the GCS going to reverse the trend towards declining trust in institutions if senior Civil Servants persist with their habit of relying on presentation and spin, to get across the Government’s message? Most informed observers have always known that the political class has evolved innovative methods of communication which estranges its members from the voters they are supposed to represent. In a well-functioning democracy, the Government has a moral duty to be open and honest with citizens about its policy positions. However, in an age of media-driven Government, tensions have become acute between the governing elite’s need to get their message across to citizens, and the Civil Service’s obligation to compile factually-based Government pronouncements. However, it is nigh on impossible to separate out the true facts from such policy pronouncements because they are framed in language which propagates half-truths and sometimes, downright lies – with the deliberate intention of deceiving. Even more worryingly, press releases which are the primary source of information for the press and media about what Government is doing are crafted in such a way as to, in effect, say ‘look here, not there’ thereby focusing their attention exactly where Government wants them to, away from areas it would rather not defend in public. One of the reasons for this modus operandi is that Government is preoccupied with presentation, manipulation of words and the dark art of spinning – instead of working on its programme of reform to deliver public services efficiently, to satisfy the wants, needs and expectations of the electorate. The political imperative of needing to put a positive slant on everything the Government does or will do, irrespective of whether it is true or not, is the reason why spin has become the centrepiece of this Government’s communications strategy. And because Government has got a monopoly on inside information (enabling it to maintain extremely tight control), it uses spin to divert attention away from the key issues that really matter to citizens and consequently, succeeds in suppressing alternative views and criticism from those on the outside, including Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Conventional wisdom has it that Ministers shape high-level policy and select from policy options developed by special advisers and mandarins, whilst it is the job of senior Civil Servants to define lower-level policy detail underneath, so that it can be used by the rest of the Civil Service to implement the policy of the Government. However, the eagerness with which senior Civil Servants have complied with their political masters’ desire to see policy announcements framed around presentation and spin, at the expense of substance, would explain why their skills set has been narrowed down to this single, dark art. It would also explain why the Civil Service has failed to deliver against promises made by the governing elite, in their election manifestos. This failure has been brought about by the erosion and downgrading of traditional specialist disciplines in the Civil Service like technical, commercial and project management – skills which are absolutely essential to the delivery of public services in today’s world. What’s more, this intense focus of attention on presentation alone has resulted in a massive gap opening up between the leadership and lower ranks of the Civil Service, who have to deal with the reality of delivering public services on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, which has in itself led to alienation and disaffection. @JagPatel3

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