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GCHQ to tackle anti-vaccine disinformation linked to Russia

Image credit: Tero Vesalainen/Dreamstime

GCHQ has launched a cyber investigation into disinformation around vaccines being spread by “hostile” states, according to reports.

False information surrounding vaccines has increased during the coronavirus pandemic, with Russia identified as one of the main spreaders of such content.

The UK agency has begun its cyber operation targeting hostile states and is using a toolkit developed to tackle disinformation and recruitment material shared by Islamic State, according to The Times.

Russia has been linked to a number of malicious online activities associated with coronavirus, believed to be part of broader efforts to undermine the West while boosting Russian interests.

The investigation is the latest step in the government’s bid to tackle a rising tide of false information being spread about a vaccine. The need to shut down such information is growing increasingly more important as scientists close in on a effective vaccine for Covid-19.  

In July, the UK, along with the US and Canada, accused Russian intelligence of targeting universities and researchers in an attempt to steal vaccine research, with the National Cyber Security Centre stepping in to offer more protection to those institutions involved.

Last month, Russia was also accused of leading a misinformation campaign which looked to undermine trust in a British coronavirus vaccine, being developed by scientists at Oxford University and AstraZeneca, by spreading crude images, memes, and videos in an attempt to discredit it.

It aims to spread fear about the vaccine with claims that it will turn people into apes because it uses a chimpanzee virus. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the campaign as a “shabby piece of disinformation” and “utterly deplorable”.

Russian-made image shows a chimpanzee in a lab coat from pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca – which is manufacturing the vaccine – brandishing a syringe

Russian-made image shows a chimpanzee in a lab coat from pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca – which is manufacturing the vaccine – brandishing a syringe

Image credit: Vesti News

A government source told the Times: “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.”

Tactics under consideration include taking down websites and content linked to hostile states and disrupting the actors behind the disinformation. GCHQ will attempt to do this by encrypting the state’s own data so they cannot access it and by blocking communication between these groups. 

The latest reports of disinformation came as Russia launched a state-backed social media campaign to promote its own vaccine around the world. 

The UK Government, cybersecurity experts, and online safety campaigners have repeatedly warned of the threat of disinformation and other misleading content, particularly during the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, digital secretary Oliver Dowden and health secretary Matt Hancock have agreed with social media platforms on new measures to limit the spread of vaccine misinformation and disinformation and help people find the information they need about any Covid-19 vaccine.

At a virtual roundtable to address the growth of vaccine misinformation, Facebook, Twitter and Google committed to the principle that no company should profit from or promote Covid-19 anti-vaccine disinformation, to respond to flagged content more swiftly, and to work with authorities to promote scientifically accurate messages.

The forums will see the government, social media platforms, public health bodies, and academia increase their cooperation and ongoing information sharing to deliver a better understanding of the evolving threat caused by false Covid-19 vaccine narratives.

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