Funding for the Government's flagship 'fake news' pilot has ended

The Government has refused to provide assurances over the future funding of its rapid-response unit only months after it was set up to tackle a surge in the volume of fake news.

The Government has not confirmed future funding for its 'fake news' rapid-response unit (pic credit: ©GettyImages)
The Government has not confirmed future funding for its 'fake news' rapid-response unit (pic credit: ©GettyImages)

The Cabinet Office-based unit was launched in April as a six-month pilot project. This ended last month and there has yet to be any formal announcement as to whether the work of the unit will continue.

One of the core elements of its work has been dealing with disinformation - a remit shared with the Government’s National Security Communications Team, which is also based in the Cabinet Office.

The annual cost of staffing the unit is £342,825, according to a Parliamentary Question answered in June by Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith. This includes salaries for several senior civil servants who work in the unit on a part-time basis.

Its key tasks include expanding digital analysis of misinformation and disinformation, and increasing content capability to communicate public information that is accurate, clear and responsive.

Commenting on the future of the unit, in response to a Parliamentary Question in September, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington said: "The Government is currently reviewing the impact of the Rapid Response Unit's work to date, and will make a decision on the future of the unit in due course."

Last month Fiona Bartosch, head of the unit, told PRWeek about its approach and the importance of its work, which helps "government understand the current media environment and assess the effectiveness of public communications".

She added: "Misleading stories have the potential to misrepresent government and confuse the public."

With no confirmation as to whether the unit will continue now that the pilot phase has ended, one Whitehall commentator, speaking under condition of anonymity, remarked: "It would appear that the rapid response unit has fizzled out, which is a great shame."

If the unit closes after just six months, it will be a major disappointment to Alex Aiken, executive director of the Government Communication Service, who has repeatedly stressed the importance of combating fake news.

In June he warned that "disinformation is a continuing threat to our values and our democracy" and described the unit as providing "a social-media capability to help reclaim a fact-based public debate".

The Cabinet Office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the unit is currently being funded and, if so, for how long.

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