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Coronavirus: Government cracks down on fake advice on social media and WhatsApp

The government is cracking down on fake advice spread about the coronavirus, from myths about how to treat symptoms to scam text messages warning people they face jail for leaving their homes.

Many have likely come across questionable advice about COVID-19 online, on social media and on messaging apps such as WhatsApp, and Downing Street says five to 10 incidents are being identified every day.

Among them are:

Texts claiming to be from the government warning that people were being fined for leaving the house.Scams purporting to be from HMRC offering tax refunds because of coronavirus disruption.False hospital advice advising people to gargle and drink water every 15 minutes to “wash the coronavirus down into the stomach, where the acid could kill it”.Another fake tip saying people could test themselves for the virus by holding their breath for 10 seconds.Doctored screenshots of official guidance on the government website suggesting the UK was to enter lockdown from Friday 20 March – three days before it actually happened. Image: People have received messages claiming they would receive tax refunds because of coronavirus Image: One false text suggested people’s movements were being traced

Downing Street says a Rapid Response Unit has been set up, working within the Cabinet Office and No 10, to tackle these kinds of narratives as the disease continues to spread across the UK.

The dedicated team will respond to disinformation in various ways, including issuing direct rebuttals on social media, promoting public health campaigns, and working with tech companies to remove the offending posts.

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People are also being advised to look out for telling signs that advice they see online is incorrect.

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They should check for bad spelling and grammar, check the source and the facts, look beyond the headline, and think about whether suspicious images and videos appear to be doctored.

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Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the government would be further ramping up its public information campaign, including adverts featuring chief medical officer Chris Whitty, so long as the pandemic continues.

“We need people to follow expert medical advice and stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives,” he said.

“It is vital that this message hits home and that this misinformation and disinformation which undermines it is knocked down quickly.

“We are working with social media companies – and I will be pressing them this week for further action to stem the spread of falsehoods and rumours which could cost lives.”

The Rapid Response Unit is being led by Conservative MP Damian Collins.

He has partnered with the Infotagion website, which will allow people to post screenshots of suspicious coronavirus advice they have seen or received online.


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