The government’s digital minister has claimed it would not be appropriate to provide details of the scale of disinformation being tackled by a dedicated unit formed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Counter Disinformation Unit was “stood up” in March last year in the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to seek out, monitor and help take down false information concerning coronavirus. The government claimed the CDU, which brings together analysis teams from across various departments, was an existing unit that had been reactivated to helped deal with the specific issues of disinformation surrounding the pandemic.
But, asked by fellow Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker how many pieces of content were flagged to social media companies last year, minister for digital Caroline Dinenage declined to comment on the scale of the problem being tackled by the unit.
“It would not be appropriate for the unit to provide a running commentary on the volume of content flagged with social media platforms,” she said.
Despite the lack of detail, the minister claimed that “the government takes the issue of disinformation very seriously”.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been vitally important that the public has accurate information and DCMS is leading work across Government to tackle disinformation,” she said. “The Counter Disinformation Unit brings together cross-Government monitoring and analysis capabilities. The Unit’s primary function is to provide a comprehensive picture of the extent, scope and impact of disinformation and misinformation regarding Covid-19 and to work with partners to ensure appropriate action is taken.”
Dinenage added: “Throughout the pandemic, we have been working closely with social media platforms to quickly identify and help them respond to potentially harmful content on their platforms, including removing harmful content in line with their terms and conditions, and promoting authoritative sources of information.”
The digital minister’s reticence is not the first time the government has been incongruously secretive about the operations of its work to counter false information.
In early 2018, the Cabinet Office set up a Rapid Response Unit to combat misinformation. It was initially founded on a six-month trial basis, with dedicated funding of £342,825. For some time after the end of the scheduled trial period - and with no recent updates on its work - the government failed to answer questions about the long-term future of the RRU and its funding situation, although the department indicated that it remained in operation.
In February 2019 the government claimed that the unit would continue its work, and its operations continue today.
Sam Trendall is the editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where a version of this story first appeared.