Ministers warn against fake news about school return ‘risks’

The government is growing increasingly concerned about the impact of misleading information on social media, which it fears may undermine its efforts to get all school-aged children back into full-time education this week.

The Telegraph reports that Department for Education (DfE) officials have been monitoring hundreds of online posts containing fear-mongering ‘fake news’ content about false risks that parents face in returning their children to school.

An example is a declaration widely shared on Facebook that “all the caring parents out there whose kids may be going back in September” should heed the rest of the post, which claims that teachers now have the power to “remove your child without your consent” and transport them to a COVID-19 testing facility if they suspect that the pupil is showing signs of viral infection.

The government, it states, is stripping people of their rights as parents.

Facebook has now marked the post as disseminating “false information”.

The same claim appeared in a post last week in Urdu, which was rapidly shared in Bradford.

One parent in Bradford told an anaesthetist colleague of Dr John Wright, an epidemiologist and physician treating COVID-19 cases at Bradford Royal Infirmary, that he wouldn’t be sending his children back to school after his wife told him of the post, as he disbelieved much of what the government had said about the coronavirus.

The issue is becoming a growing worry for ministers as they seek to get all children in England back to school full-time this week and next.

Children have been unable to set foot in school since they were closed in March as part of the government’s efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Last month saw a sustained campaign by the government to persuade worried parents that it was now entirely safe for them to return their children to school.

Anxieties remain, however, and ministers are now concerned that the social media misinformation may weaken already-precarious confidence among many parents.

The DfE has now taken the step of requesting that regional school commissioners (who oversee academies) and local authorities keep a vigilant eye open for any misleading online content in their areas.

A number of councils have already warned parents about the risks of reposting content they had received, as they may thereby unwittingly help disseminate false information.

In a tweet, Lancashire Council stated: “There are malicious and false rumours being spread on social media about children returning to school.

“We have a simple message for you – don’t believe random messages sent on social media. They are there to scare you, and aren’t true.”

According to rebuttal coordinators at the DfE, they have identified in excess of 500 social media posts spreading misleading content since June.

Most of these instances are not pursued with official action as they either fail to gain traction or are sincerely believed by the posters.

A DfE spokesman stated that England’s Chief Medical Officer has clearly explained that the risks posed to children by COVID-19 are minimal.

Parents, he said, “should be in no doubt it is safe to return to school”.

He added: “We continually combat and correct misinformation through direct rebuttal, and by working with social media companies and others to remove misleading content.”

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