Exclusive: Government's 'fake news' unit gets green light for permanent funding

The Government's Rapid Response Unit (RRU) has received ministerial sign-off for permanent funding and will continue its operations, PRWeek has learned.

The Cabinet Office-based ‘fake news’ unit is continuing operations (©ThinkstockPhotos)

The Cabinet Office-based ‘fake news’ unit was launched as a pilot in April but its future was in doubt by November when funding for the operation came to an end.

However, the Cabinet Office told PRWeek last night that the RRU is "continuing operations". PRWeek understands that the RRU received ministerial approval for further funding in recent weeks and that it will continue on a permanent basis.

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.

The work of the Rapid Response Unit directly supports [our] priorities and highlights the need to continue our efforts in tackling disinformation.

Alex Aiken, executive director of the Government Communications Service

Commenting on the future of the unit, Alex Aiken, executive director of the Government Communications Service said: "Last week I set out three government communication priorities for the year ahead – raising standards, strengthening our democracy and reassuring communities. The work of the Rapid Response Unit directly supports these priorities and highlights the need to continue our efforts in tackling disinformation."

The work of the unit

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

In a government blog post, Oliver Marsh, a data journalist in the Rapid Response Unit, set out the range of work it had done since it was launched last year.

This included monitoring online media outlets and public discussion on social media about Brexit, captured by "government policy-related filters" to gauge the tone of the debate.

It also looked at the top 100 most viral government-related articles, gauged by the number of reactions, shares and comments across social media, to find that 25 per cent of the top stories were about the environment, while 15 per cent related to Brexit.

Countering misinformation

According to the RRU, the number-one viral public-sector-related article in 2018 was headlined 'Urgent national frozen veg recall after nine dead'.

The story appeared in a niche online media outlet called ‘Police Hour’, which is aimed at "members of the policing family".

The fake news unit categorised the article as misinformation, explaining that supermarkets had recalled frozen vegetable products over fears they may have contained listeria and that there had been nine listeria-related deaths in Europe since 2015.

However, the RRU deemed that the headline and accompanying article could have been taken to mean that the deaths had all occurred recently and in the UK alone.

To counter the inaccuracy in the article, which received one million shares, comments and reactions, the RRU shared information from the Food Standards Agency on government social media channels, "to ensure reliable information was visible to the public".

Monitoring ‘alternative news’ outlets

A final tranche of the RRU’s work was to monitor government-related themes which appeared in ‘alternative news’ outlets with an international audience, such as Breitbart.

It monitored alt-news outlets’ reporting of violent crime and arguments that strict gun control laws in the UK had failed to prevent.

The RRU also reviewed a rise in outlets producing pro-Brexit material with an anti-immigrant stance, articles from which, it said, regularly received more reaction on social media than Brexit articles from mainstream outlets.

On closer inspection, however, the RRU discovered that most engagement with the Brexit articles came from networks of Facebook pages with similar views, suggesting that high engagement did not necessarily equate to widely held views.

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