NHS warns of coronavirus disinformation in internet searches

10 March 2020, 00:04

Social media icons on phone
Social media stock. Picture: PA

The health service has announced a new scheme which will place NHS advice at the top of search results to help fight disinformation about Covid-19.

Official NHS guidance is to be displayed at the top of internet search results as part of measures to stop the spread of disinformation around Covid-19.

It comes as the NHS warns of the spread of misleading information around the coronavirus outbreak.

The health service has highlighted a fake account it had suspended from Twitter after it posed as a hospital and posted inaccurate information about coronavirus cases.

The account, claiming to be a hospital in Andover, Hampshire, falsely posted that it had received a number of patients with coronavirus-like symptoms before it was suspended by Twitter.

Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust declined to comment on the account but the NHS said it was continuing to work with Twitter to remove false accounts and other misleading information.

In response and as part of a new range of features for internet platforms, the health service said it had worked with Google, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram on ways to help promote “good advice” when people were searching online for information.

A screenshot showing a Twitter account posing as Andover Hospital to spread misinformation about the outbreak of Coronavirus
A fake account posing as ‘Andover Hospital’ was reported by the NHS and suspended by Twitter (NHS)

Sir Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, said: “Ensuring the public has easy access to accurate NHS advice, however they search for it, not only will support people to take the right action but will also help the country’s response to coronavirus.

“The NHS has already been battling coronavirus fake news, from working to take down false Twitter accounts to speaking out against misleading treatments being promoted by homeopaths online.

“It’s right that social media platforms and search engines take any action so they can help ensure the public are directed to NHS advice first.”

He thanked NHS staff for “caring for patients, testing thousands of worried people and taking calls from thousands more”.

The health service is also working with social media companies to verify more than 800 accounts belonging to NHS organisations including hospital trusts and other local groups.

The range of new online tools will also include Knowledge Panels – prominent pop-out boxes of information – in Google search results on mobile devices.

The boxes are part of a new partnership between the NHS and Google, and will offer easy access to official information about more than 250 conditions, including Covid-19.

The Government has previously announced a new specialist unit that is working with social media firms to monitor platforms for misinformation and remove such content.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Today’s actions are another important step so members of the public can access reliable, accurate health information, which is more crucial than ever as we continue our response to coronavirus.

“These changes will ensure the latest trusted NHS guidance sits at the very top of Google search lists, so people can be reassured they are reading official, up-to-date Government advice.

“Public safety is our top priority and we are harnessing digital tools to reach millions of people on more than 250 conditions they are searching for – including coronavirus – helping tackle misinformation and ensuring the public is well informed to take control of their health.”

Professor Jonathan Benger, chief medical officer at NHS Digital, which runs the NHS website, said: “Syndication from the NHS website means that people can be confident that the information they see meets the highest clinical standards.

“The more we can share accurate information, the less likelihood there is of inaccuracy and rumour, which could put people at risk.”

Steve Hatch, Facebook’s vice president for northern Europe, said: “We’re determined to do everything we can to ensure everyone using our platforms can access credible and accurate information.

“Two weeks ago we launched special messages towards the top of people’s news feeds pointing them to coronavirus information from the NHS and we’ll continue running these.

“Anyone who searches for coronavirus or related terms on Facebook, or clicks on a hashtag on Instagram, is also shown a pop-up pointing them to the latest information from the NHS.

“We’re also removing false claims and conspiracy theories which have been flagged by leading health organisations and that could cause harm to people who believe them.

“We’re in close contact with the NHS about further initiatives to support public health efforts around coronavirus.”

By Press Association

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