UK government to establish new unit to battle onslaught of fake news

24 Jan 2018

10 Downing Street, the residence of the UK prime minister. Image: pcruciatti/Shutterstock

A team will be established in the UK to combat the complex problem of fake news.

A spokesperson for UK prime minister Theresa May has said that the government will be creating a dedicated national security unit to fight against disinformation and the dissemination of fake news.

Battling competing narratives

The spokesperson announced the news on Tuesday (23 January) following a meeting of the UK’s National Security Council, where officials examined the findings of a broad-ranging review into the existing threat response capabilities.

“We are living in an era of fake news and competing narratives,” May’s spokesperson said.

He added that the UK government “will respond with more and better use of national security communications to tackle these interconnected complex challenges”.

According to the spokesperson, the UK government will build on existing capabilities “by creating a dedicated national security communications unit”.

He explained: “This will be tasked with combating disinformation by state actors and others. It will more systematically deter our adversaries and help us deliver on national security priorities.”

According to The Guardianthere will also be a defence-only review of needs and capabilities called the Modernising Defence Programme, which will examine further work that may be needed to bring the UK’s defence capabilities up to speed for the modern age.

TechCrunch reported that monitoring of social media platforms will be a key element of the security unit’s work, possibly by deterring adversaries through consistent flagging of fake materials.

Details on the scheme are currently unavailable but, considering the rapid pace of social media disinformation campaigns, it would have to be a swift response from the new team.

Interference from state actors

Last year, May publicly pointed the finger at Russia, accusing it of spreading fake news online and weaponising misinformation. At the time, she said: “The UK will do what is necessary to protect ourselves, and work with our allies to do likewise.”

French president Emmanuel Macron recently announced the introduction of an anti-fake news election law to place restrictions on social media during elections.

A UK committee is currently speaking to representatives from social media firms such as Facebook and Twitter to gather more information on topics such as Brexit and Russian interference.

Facebook’s product manager for civic engagement, Samidh Chakrabarti, said in a blogpost that Facebook should have done better when it came to detecting threats. “This kind of activity goes against everything we stand for. It’s abhorrent to us that a nation state used our platform to wage a cyberwar intended to divide society.

“This was a new kind of threat that we couldn’t easily predict, but we should have done better.”

He added: “Policing this content at a global scale is an open research problem since it is hard for machines to understand the cultural nuances of political intimidation.

“And, while we are hiring over 10,000 more people this year to work on safety and security, this is likely to remain a challenge.”

10 Downing Street, the residence of the UK prime minister. Image: pcruciatti/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects