NHS takes action to combat coronavirus misinformation online

The NHS has ramped up efforts to combat online myths and misinformation about the emerging coronavirus epidemic in the UK, including working with social-media platforms and search engines.

(Pic: Kiyoshi Takahase Segundo/Allard Schager/Alamy)
(Pic: Kiyoshi Takahase Segundo/Allard Schager/Alamy)

The health service has asked Google to point the public toward verified NHS guidance in response to queries about ‘coronavirus treatments’ or ‘coronavirus symptoms’.

It is also working with Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to verify or ‘blue tick’ more than 800 accounts belonging to NHS organisations, including hospital trusts and local commissioning groups, so members of the public know they can trust the advice those accounts give out.

Twitter and Facebook will also begin directing users to the NHS website if they search for coronavirus on the platform over the coming weeks. 

The move comes after the NHS discovered that an unknown Twitter user had created a false account posing as a hospital, putting out inaccurate information about the number of coronavirus cases. 

The organisation has also publically condemned homeopaths promoting false treatments for the disease as part of its efforts to fight bad advice and misinformation in the media and online.

The NHS is working with public health colleagues and the Government, and has received anecdotal reports of misinformation or bad advice, prompting it to take action.

The cost to public health of misinformation 
PRWeek understands that the NHS is concerned about the additional burden that could be placed on the service – during a period of heightened need – by people disseminating bad health advice that they have picked up from disreputable sources.

Conversely, the service wants the public to read its official health advice, which is tailored to people living in the UK and will direct them to take the correct next steps if they think they have been infected by coronavirus, such as calling the 111 number. 

The NHS 111 online service has dealt with more than a million enquiries since it was updated for coronavirus information last month.

Government combats fake news
The Government’s Department for Culture Media and Sport has announced that it has launched a unit to combat fake news about coronavirus, which will identify and respond to disinformation and focus on information that is spread to cause “harm for political, personal or financial gain”.

Its work is separate to that of the Rapid Response Unit, set up by the Government in 2018 to combat fake news.

NHS Knowledge Panels for apps and search engines
The NHS has also been working with Google to create ‘Knowledge Panels’ – pop-out boxes of information for the public about a range of health conditions, including coronavirus.

Previously, NHS information could only be disseminated in its complete form because it had been clinically certified, but the health service has worked to break it down into bite-sized chunks that are more easily used by search engines and app developers, and can be more easily read on mobile devices.   

Tara Donnelly, chief digital officer at NHSX, said: “One of NHSX’s key missions is to ensure that the public are provided with accurate health information so they can be confident they are following official NHS advice.

“By making NHS website content free to use for third-party organisations, we are ensuring that more people get NHS advice when they search online rather than from one of the many other sources; some with guidance that isn't right for the UK, and some that just aren’t right.”

Commenting on its efforts to combat misinformation, NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said that providing the public with easy access to health advice would help the country’s response to COVID-19.

He added: “The NHS has already been battling coronavirus fake news, from working to take down false Twitter accounts to speaking out against misleading treatments being promoted by homeopaths online. 

“It’s right that social-media platforms and search engines take any action so they can help ensure the public are directed to NHS advice first.”

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