Cabinet Office plans 'fake news' rapid rebuttal teams

The Government's response to the 'fake news' phenomenon is the creation of two teams to combat disinformation by foreign states and speedily call out inaccurate reporting of its activities.

┬ęThinkstockPhotos
┬ęThinkstockPhotos

The units will have different briefs, but both will be housed within the Cabinet Office.

One team springs from ministers’ desire to better combat the spread of inaccurate news about the Government.

Plans for the ‘national security communications unit’ were announced last Tuesday (23 January) by the Prime Minister’s spokesman on the recommendation of national security adviser Sir Mark Sedwill.

It will likely report to the National Security Council, a cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister.

The other team will address the concerns of defence chiefs about Britain’s vulnerability to disinformation propagated by hostile states, particularly Russia.

The unit, which is yet to be publicly named, will focus on rapid social-media rebuttal of false reports about the Government, such as the hard-left news website The Skwawkbox’s claim that it issued a D-notice [a request to news editors not to publish information] on the death toll from the Grenfell Tower fire last summer.

Plans for the unit – which will be based in the Cabinet Office but is intended to work with all departmental comms teams – were revealed to PRWeek earlier this month by the Government Communication Service chief Alex Aiken.


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


Fresh details have been supplied by Aiken’s former deputy, Gabriel Milland, in an opinion piece revealing that ministers have felt "real rage" over some instances of inaccurate reporting.

Another such instance, Milland said, was the animal sentience row in November. This was a backlash against Conservative MPs after The Independent and Metro, among other titles, reported inaccurately that they had voted to enshrine in Brexit legislation that animals cannot feel pain.

The Environment Secretary Michael Gove issued a written ministerial statement to deny the story, which BuzzFeed later reported had become "the most viral politics article of 2017".

Ministers have a sense that many government press offices are too slow to defend its policy, Milland said.

However, he described the national security communications unit as "the most necessary". It would, he said, give Britain the same capability as several of its NATO allies, which already have impressive "war rooms" that monitor incoming information operations aimed at destabilisation.

The activities of Russia, in particular, are seen as cause to set up the unit. In November the Prime Minister accused Russia of attempting to "weaponise information" and "deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories".

Last Monday (22 January), just ahead of the announcement of the unit, the chief of the general staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, warned: "We should be looking to identify our own vulnerabilities to Russian malign influence and disinformation, and act to reduce them."

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

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


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