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The government is refusing to publicise basic details about a counter-disinformation unit stood up in order to combat fake news about Covid at the onset of the pandemic.
The Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) has rejected a Freedom of Information (FOI) request asking how many people worked in the unit, how many pieces of disinformation it had identified, and the three most recent cases of disinformation that it had dealt with, PublicTechnology reported.
DCMS confirmed that the unit was still operational but refused to provide further information, claiming that doing so “would, or would be likely to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”. It took the department 126 working days to adequately respond to the FOI request, Public Technology said, despite being required to respond within 20.
The government has refused to provide more information in response to the 69 written questions from MPs over the last two years, the publication added.
Lucy Powell, the Shadow Culture Secretary, recently asked the government to disclose how many staff worked in the unit, how many pieces of disinformation had been directly rebutted on social media, as well as how many had been flagged to each of Twitter, Facebook and Google.
DCMS minister Chris Philip told Powell that the number of staff working in the unit had grown since the start of the pandemic, but refused to say how many there were. He also refused to share details of the amount of disinformation being dealt with by the unit, and where it was being found.
Philp said that upon finding a piece of disinformation, the unit “coordinates departments across Whitehall to deploy the appropriate response”. He added “this can include a direct rebuttal on social media, flagging content to platforms and ensuring public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources”.
The government activated the unit in early 2020 with the aim of tackling “false and misleading narratives” about the pandemic, claiming at the time that it was handling 70 incidents every week.
It was described as one of several teams contributing to the department’s wider ‘Counter Disinformation Cell’ comprised of government figures and representatives from the tech industry.
Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, who was Culture Secretary in March 2020, said it was “vital” to make sure that false or misleading information that undermined the government’s public health messaging was “knocked down quickly”.
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