DfE to tackle ‘fake news’ with its own rapid rebuttal unit

The Department for Education is setting up its own “rapid rebuttal unit” to tackle so-called “fake news” in the media.

It is said to be one of the first department-specific teams in government to challenge “misinformation at the source” and rebuff “misleading content” before reaching the mainstream.

Two DfE job adverts for media officers to work in the unit are currently live and state that this work is “more vital than ever” in making sure the public aren’t “deceived by so-called fake news”.

They add: “The department is one of the first in government to be looking to tackle misinformation at the source with a team that will aim to make sure misleading content running in the media or on social media is corrected in the shortest period possible time before it reaches the mainstream and misinforms the public.

“The department’s new rapid rebuttal unit aims to spot and counter misinformation on social media at its source, making sure it doesn’t make its way into mainstream media and mislead the public. This is one of the first teams of its type across government.”

A similar but government-wide “rapid response” unit was set up in the Cabinet Office in 2018 by former prime minister Theresa May to counter fake news, and then by minister Michael Gove in August 2019 which specifically targeted Brexit half-truths.

In March, the Cabinet Office announced this unit would now combat misinformation about Covid-19.

There do not appear to be any other similar teams across Whitehall, meaning the DfE’s could be the first department-specific rebuttal unit.

Fake news was a problem raised by former education secretary Damian Hinds just before he was sacked in July 2019. Speaking at a social media summit, he spoke about the specific problem of the “spread of misleading content on vaccinations” in schools but added this “issue goes much further than that, and without firm action it is set to get a lot worse”.

The concern has not been raised by Hinds’ successor Gavin Williamson since he came into post, but there have been recent cases of his department publicly rebutting stories published by the media.

On 18 April, a preview of the Sunday Times’ front page revealed reports that senior ministers had drawn up plans for schools to reopen as early as 11 May.

But the DfE tweeted that evening: “No decision has been made on a timetable for re-opening schools. Schools remain closed until further notice, except for children of critical workers and the most vulnerable children. Schools will only re-open when the scientific advice indicates it is the right time to do so.”

Just today the DfE has also published a blog entitled “addressing misleading claims about department guidance” following two stories in the media from Sunday.

It said that one, from the Independent, reported on claims made by National Education Union joint general secretary Mary Bousted who suggested the department’s guidance to schools on how to open to more pupils have been updated 41 times since it was posted on 12 May.

The DfE claimed this is “untrue” and the guidance in question has been updated “just once since it was published last month”.

Another article, published this time by The Mirror, reported that celebrity fitness expert Joe Wicks was due to lead a review of the PE curriculum, which the DfE said again is “not true”. 

The government’s existing anti-fake news units have however come in for criticism, with the Liberal Democrats’ former Brexit spokesperson, Tom Brake, describing them as “shameful spin machines” last year.

A DfE spokesperson said: “In line with wider work by the Government Communication Service, we want to identify and counter misinformation and disinformation online, whether it is shared inadvertently or maliciously.

“That’s why we’re looking for talented individuals to join our team, helping us dispel myths and explain education policies to the public using straightforward, easy-to-understand social media content, blogs, and more.”