Led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the unit will bring together teams from across Whitehall to build up a comprehensive picture on the extent, scope and impact of disinformation relating to the coronavirus.
The aim of the project is to identify and respond to disinformation – the deliberate creation and dissemination of false or manipulated information intended to deceive and mislead – and cut down on the inadvertent spreading of such information.
DCMS said its officials were working with strategic communications experts to make sure the government is prepared to respond, and that it is working with social media companies to monitor interference and limit the spread of disinformation.
“Defending the country from misinformation and digital interference is a top priority,” said DCMS secretary of state Oliver Dowden.
“As part of our ongoing work to tackle these threats we have brought together expert teams to make sure we can respond effectively should these threats be identified in relation to the spread of Covid-19.
“This work includes regular engagement with the social media companies, which are well placed to monitor interference and limit the spread of disinformation and will make sure we are on the front foot to act if required,” he said.
The first cyber security threats relating to the coronavirus began to appear in January. Many of them are simple phishing scams, and such threats are still widespread – email security specialist Mimecast has just identified a new variant that rehashes the classic “HMRC refund” scam – but in February, more sinister variants emerged.
These include emails spreading conspiracy theories that suggest, for example, that the Covid-19 virus was created in a laboratory and is being used for population control.
Other bad actors have attempted to spread disinformation relating to coronavirus through anti-5G mobile groups emboldened by uncritical mainstream coverage of conspiracy theories relating to the safety of 5G.
One such example that was spread on Facebook and has been seen by Computer Weekly claims that a vaccine contains “digitised” coronavirus ribonucleic acid (RNA) that can be activated by 5G signals operating in the 60GHz spectrum.
According to the Facebook post, which is delusional nonsense but has nevertheless been widely shared, victims’ bodies can therefore be “internally digitised” and “non-compliant” individuals killed.
Carl Wearn, Mimecast
Mimecast’s head of e-crime, Carl Wearn, said disinformation and scams were often seen coalescing around geopolitical and world events, and warned that levels would almost certainly increase.
“Going forward, any similar event that impacts a large section of the public and communities in general is almost certain to attract similar targeted behaviour from criminals. It is vitally important to be aware of this,” said Wearn.
“There are a number of simple steps you can take to minimise your risk, such as using a reliable antivirus solution and following safe cyber hygiene practices such as strong password usage and never enabling macros in any attachments if you do open them.
“I urge everyone to be vigilant at this time in relation to any emails or electronic communications purporting to be in relation to the support of those affected by the coronavirus,” he added.