Coronavirus: 'There are places you can trust' - Minister warns against disinformation

Deborah Haynes, foreign affairs editor

The UK's armed forces minister has issued a warning about fake news and disinformation on the coronavirus pandemic and the UK response.

James Heappey urged the public to look to credible news outlets and to check government websites for accurate updates on the coronavirus crisis.

"We need people to know that there are places they can trust to get their information so they don't have their head turned by the stuff that is just outright wrong or in some cases malicious," he told Sky News in an interview.

The comments came as the European Union accused pro-Kremlin media of putting out disinformation on COVID-19 in line with an alleged Russian strategy to "sow distrust and chaos and exacerbate crisis situations".

Moscow denied the allegation, accusing the EU of "fake news".

Mr Heappey said this kind of activity alleged by Brussels "is a long-established pattern of Russian behaviour".

"We have seen it where Russia and other adversaries around the world have seen opportunity in natural disasters or other moments of crisis to challenge the reputation or the actions of other western governments and that is what they have a habit of doing," he said.

The minister, a former army officer, said what is important is for the public to know where they can access accurate information about the pandemic and how Britain is responding.

"I am so proud what our people are doing - the RAF medics who have brought people back from Cuba, the drivers who are off to learn how to drive oxygen tankers, our amazing planners that are out there with local resilience forums, helping local government to prepare themselves.

"I am itching to tell people everything that we are doing. The problem is everyone is more interested in all this made up stuff of the things that we have no plans to do whatsoever."

He described reports that circulated on social media in recent days of soldiers on the streets in south London possibly being linked with a new COVID-19 military force when actually they were reservist soldiers simply turning up to their base for regular training.

"I think most of the instances are people just getting the wrong end of the stick," Mr Heappey said.

"There will be a couple of things where people have seen videos of tanks and thought: well here is an opportunity to stir up some trouble or even worse just to extend their social media reach. And that's really frustrating because it's opportunistic and it's misleading and it makes people worried.

"And then of course there is the reality that people are doing this very deliberately to sow disinformation, to erode trust in the UK government and that is something as a government, as an MOD we are very aware of, we need to try to tackle, but the priority is to tell people where they can go to get information they can trust."

In a report published on Thursday, the EU's European External Access Service highlighted more than 110 "corona-related disinformation cases" it said were by pro-Kremlin media outlets.

It included a clip in which a commentator suggests Britain's defence laboratory may have developed a vaccine for the virus a year ago. He also alludes to a false rumour suggesting a link between Porton Down and the Salisbury spy poisoning.in 2018.

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The report looked at a range of false claims from around the world about the virus - not just by Russia-linked outlets - that it said have flooded television, print and social media channels since the disease was first identified in China late last year.

"We are witnessing a substantive amount of both misinformation and disinformation spreading on- and offline," according to the assessment.

"While misinformation involves the unintentional spread of false information, disinformation campaigns entail the intentional production and/or dissemination of verifiably false content, spread either for political or financial reasons."

An internal document by the EU agency that has not been made public - but a copy of which has been seen by Sky News - contained more pointed criticism of Russia.

"A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing," the nine-page note said. Its content was first reported by the Financial Times.

"The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems - thus preventing an effective response to the outbreak."