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Alex Aiken introduces the Rapid Response Unit

Earlier this year I announced plans to build a rapid response social media capability to help support the reclaiming of a fact-based public debate.

In April, the Cabinet Office launched the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) to help meet this complex policy challenge. The new team is made up of specialists including analyst-editors, data scientists, media and digital experts. It monitors news and information being shared and engaged with online to identify emerging issues with speed, accuracy and with integrity. We do this to better understand the news environment, to let departments know about emerging stories, and to assess the effectiveness of our public information.

Based across the Cabinet Office and No.10, the RRU is neither a “rebuttal” unit, nor is it a “fake news” unit. During this pilot period, we’ve tested the concept, evaluated the impact of specific initiatives and examined how strongly stories are shared online.

There’s then the question of how we respond to public debate online.

As press officers we know that rebuttal will often not be an appropriate course of action.

As digital content experts we know that pithy, polarised untruths cannot and should not always be met with snappy responses.

As communicators we all know that good communication starts with listening, and that we must be alert to what is being said about government policy, including mis- or disinformation.

Finally, as civil servants we know that impartiality, accuracy and transparency is absolutely fundamental to everything we do.

The unit’s round the clock monitoring service has identified several stories of concern during the pilot, ranging from the chemical weapons attack in Syria to domestic stories relating to the NHS and crime.

For example, following the Syria airstrikes, 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.

Due to the way that search engine algorithms work, when people searched for information on the strikes, these unreliable sources were appearing above official UK government information. In fact, no government information was appearing on the first 15 pages of Google results. We know that search is an excellent indicator of intention. It can reflect bias in information received from elsewhere.

The unit therefore ensured those using search terms that indicated bias – such as ‘false flag’ – were presented with factual information on the UK’s response. The RRU improved the ranking from below 200 to number 1 within a matter of hours. Information on UKAID’s work in the region was also immediately amplified amongst audiences demonstrating the highest levels of interest in humanitarian issues affecting displaced Syrians.

The unit has also tackled misinformation closer to home. 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.

The RRU works closely with the National Security Communications Team (NSCT), which has been recently expanded. NCST’s purpose is to allow Government to better tackle the communications elements of interconnected and complex challenges to our national security, including (but not limited to) disinformation. In crisis situations, the RRU and the NSCT closely support each other’s work.

We are at the forefront of a growing international consensus on the need to take action against inaccurate or misleading information, whatever its source or intent. There is now an opportunity and urgency for the UK Government to set the highest standards in tackling misinformation with efficiency, propriety, and transparency, maintaining our position as an innovator in communications.

Alongside civil society institutions, our free media, and internet companies, we will do what is necessary to ensure a sustainable online news environment, build societal resilience to disinformation, and preserve our democracy.


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