The Cabinet Office has confirmed for the first time that its “fake news unit” will continue working on an ongoing basis.
The Rapid Response Unit, a group of social media experts tasked with combatting the spread of fake news online, launched last April under a six-month pilot scheme funded by the Cabinet Office. When that tranche of funding ran out in October, the department had yet to set out its plans for the future of the unit.
The unit has now said it will continue operating following what has been “a successful pilot period”. However, at the time of publication, the Cabinet Office had not been able to share how it was being funded.
When CSW contacted the Cabinet Office for further details on the unit's funding and plans for the coming months, a spokesperson said the department would make an announcement in the coming months.
In a blog post setting out some of the prevailing digital trends identified by the RRU in 2018, Oliver Marsh, a data journalist in the unit, said the team would also work with the Government Communication Service to train civil servants on how to respond to the “modern news environment”.
Training will be rolled out through Accelerate, the GCS’s digital skills training programme launched in June last year. It will train civil servants to use the FACT model – Find, Assess, Create, Target – to respond to news and create content promoting government information, he said.
Announcing plans for the unit in January 2018, Alex Aiken, the executive director for government communications, said it would address the challenges for government communicators that had arisen as the way news is shared has changes.
One of the Government Communication Service’s primary aims 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”, he said at the time.
The unit's work so far
The blog post also gave some insight into the work the RRU has been doing so far in its first few months since being set up.
“The team monitors digital trends to spot emerging issues, including misinformation and disinformation, and identifies the best way to respond,” Marsh said. It also analyses major trends in discussions about the work of government online, which is used to support the Cabinet Office’s Media Monitoring Unit.
“Alongside polling, focus groups, traditional media monitoring, and other inputs, this provides government with a better understanding of communications within an increasingly complex news environment,” he said.
An analysis of online news by the RRU found the most widely-shared government-related article in 2017 was a story that wrongly claimed the government had passed a vote claiming animals couldn’t feel pain, which followed an announcement in December 2017 that it would introduce legislation recognising animal sentience.
In 2018, the most widely-shared story relating to the public sector was entitled “Urgent national frozen veg recall after nine dead”, which the unit characterised as misinformation because it implied nine people had died recently in the UK. In fact, there had been nine deaths across Europe since 2015 caused by listeria, which had been raised as a health risk in frozen vegetable products that were recalled by supermarkets last year.
The RRU had worked with the Food Standards Agency to intervene by sharing reliable information about the incident on social media, Marsh wrote.
The unit’s experts had also analysed themes in discussions about Brexit and found that the most prominent voices online were those at the far ends of the pro- and anti-Brexit spectrum. They also identified an “ongoing demand for clear, straightforward factual information on Brexit” based on search engine data and publicly available research, Marsh said.