The British government has a new unit fighting “alternative news” websites, driving their stories down search engine results and pushing the official government narrative to the top.
Civil servant and government communication boss Alex Aiken said the Cabinet Office’s new Rapid Response Unit (RRU), which has begun a pilot, is not a “fake news unit” as it was dubbed when first reported in April.
In a blog post, he described how the taxpayer-funded unit “monitors news and information being shared and engaged with online” and seeks to tackle narratives, from outside the mainstream media, which the establishment does not favour.
“There’s then the question of how we respond to public debate online,” he writes, revealing the government will seek to hide news it does not like rather than use “rebuttal”.
“The unit’s round the clock monitoring service has identified several stories of concern during the pilot,” he explains, claiming “the unit identified that a number of false narratives from alternative news sources were gaining traction online.
“These ‘alt-news’ sources are biased and rely on sensationalism rather than facts to pique readers’ interest,” he added.
In response, the unit drove the “alt-news” stories down search engine results and pushed the government “factual information” to the very top.
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Describing a specific example, he explained how the government had sought to downplay a crime wave sweeping the UK and the rising murder rate in London.
“In early April, a number of articles from US and UK outlets reported on murder rates in London outstripping New York for the first time, based on the selective use of data.
“Sensationalist in nature, these stories quickly spread via social media, which was then spotted by RRU monitoring. Action needed to be taken to prevent panic and provide reassurance in the face of these alarmist news stories.
“The unit activated social media content which helped to rebalance the narrative and reassure those who were most engaged with the topic.”
A wide range of news outlets including global wire sservice Reuters reported the story at the time when London’s homicide rate did indeed surpass that of New York City. Government information contoller Mr Aiken did not, however, explain why it is wrong or sensationalist to report this fact.
At the end of last year, the UK government also floated a proposal to change the law and force social media firms to delete and censor content it considers “harmful”.
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