Cabinet Office's 'fake news' units will reveal hostile propaganda waged against UK and speed is of the essence

PRWeek broke the story earlier in January with a piece by GCS supremo Alex Aiken, but it caught fire this week when the Prime Minister's official spokesman confirmed the news - the might of the Government Communications Service was going into battle against fake news.

Don't allow long clearance procedures to slow down the response, warns Gabriel Milland
Don't allow long clearance procedures to slow down the response, warns Gabriel Milland

Lost amongst the detail is that two things are going on here:

The first of these is perhaps the most glamorous, but also the most necessary.

This is the creation of a team that will have national security communications and specifically the threat from hostile states as its main focus.

What the UK is basically doing here is catching up with several of our NATO allies, which already have impressive "war rooms" that monitor incoming information operations aimed at destabilisation.

To see just what is possible, take a look at Hamilton 68, a new-ish project from the German Marshall Fund think-tank in Washington.

It tracks in real time the top messages, subjects and memes that social media accounts linked to Russian-orientated information operations are currently targeting at Americans.

It also analyses which media channels are amplifying these same sources (spoiler: the answer almost always is and Sputnik).

This type of transparency, showing the British public just what information operations are currently being mounted against the UK, should be something that is actively considered by the new unit.

To be truly useful, it should aim to target the daily drip-drip of hostile propaganda, as well as being able to be deployed in moments of national crisis – like a terrorist or cyber-attack.

What now seems clear is that alongside this national security unit, the Cabinet Office is also going to acquire another unit, which may be expected to tackle the so-called "fake news" storms such as The Skwawkbox’s reporting of claims that there had been a D-Notice on victim figures from the Grenfell fire.

Do not under-estimate the real rage among ministers about episodes like this, or the row over animal sentience – and their sense that many Government press offices are too slow to defend Government policy.

Too often, actual falsehoods that poison public discourse are being allowed to go unchallenged.

The need for all Whitehall press shops to operate world-class rebuttal operations was a major feature of the Modern Media Operation guide, which I led on creating for GCS last year.

This is definitely one of the areas where, in modernising government communications, care must be taken not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and assume that media relations – including rapid rebuttal – is dead as a discipline.

And, of course, the key word is rapid.

The fearsome Labour spin operation of the 90s was based on an insight from Clinton campaign that "speed kills" when countering attacks.

It is strongly to be hoped that putting this unit in the Cabinet Office doesn’t mean that long clearance processes slow things down.

Or, that departments get the idea that this is something they can leave to the centre.

Mark Twain said that a lie could be halfway round the world before the truth had got its boots on.

In a world where digital communications has replaced the telegram and is on its way to killing off the printing press, that same lie can now be halfway to one of the more distant galaxies in the same time.

Gabriel Milland is a partner at Public First and was previously deputy director, GCS and head of comms for two government departments

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