British spies are on a mission to halt the spread of misinformation surrounding Covid-19 as the country edges closer to a vaccine release.
According to The Times, an operation led by GCHQ aims to ‘disrupt’ anti-vaccine disinformation on social media and other sites by hostile states.
The organisation is using a special toolkit to gather communications from around the world and counter disinformation activities, according to a report.
It is believed the Russian government is actively trying to undermine the West in its attempts to create an effective vaccine. The UK Government has already announced a move to adopt a ‘cyber-offensive strategy’ against Moscow’s leadership and Russian sponsored disinformation groups.
In July, hackers believed to be supported by the Russian state were caught attempting to steal Covid-19 vaccine research. At the time, both the NCSC and Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) said it is “almost certain” that the group operates as part of the Russian intelligence services.
GCHQ is unable to target regular users online who post vaccine misinformation due to privacy laws, but instead is focusing on other state-linked content to disrupt and encrypt data.
Tackling vaccine misinformation is currently at the top of the UK Government’s list as the country moves closer to a coronavirus vaccine. Speaking to The Times, a government source commented: “GCHQ has been told to take out anti-vaxxers online and on social media. There are ways they have used to monitor and disrupt terrorist propaganda.”
The spread of misinformation concerning inoculation against the coronavirus is becoming a concern.
Social media sites have made moves to combat misleading content on their platforms. Twitter announced a crackdown on unverified coronavirus Tweets in March, as well as adding a ‘flagging‘ system to the platform to inform users of posts that may contain incorrect or misleading information.
Facebook, too, announced a similar suppression after anti-vaccination misinformation posted on the site fuelled a tripling in measles cases in the UK.
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Commenting on the dangers of misinformation spread, Pascal Crowe from the Open Rights Group said: “Online misinformation is real, but its impact depends as much on an absence of knowledge as much as it does the presence of a lie. Better public engagement and education about how vaccines work is just as important as tech-driven solutions.”
According to data from a recent report by The Royal Society on virus vaccine deployment, around 36% of respondents in the UK and 51% in the US report they are either “uncertain or unlikely” to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
The report also found that vaccine deployments face “an infodemic with the rise of misinformation that fills knowledge voids under conditions of uncertainty.”
It was announced yesterday that an effective vaccine is close to final development. Preliminary analysis of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine shows that it could prevent more than 90% of people from getting Covid-19.