Russian hackers behind fake news over the UK’s vaccination programmes

With the UK government becoming more and more vocal about the threats posed by Russia-backed hacker groups, a former National Counter Terrorism Security Office head has warned that Russian hackers are spreading disinformation and fake news over flu and measles vaccination programmes run by the government.

The government has asked departments and officials to monotor social media and to flag articles that disinform the public about vaccination programmes.

It has recently been observed that after reading certain articles that were shared on popular social media platforms, people are hesitating to expose their children to several government-run vaccination programmes.

The issue has become so grave and widespread that the government is now asking health officials to monitor social media and to flag fake news and tweets that are being used to spread the disinformation campaign. The list of concerned departments include Public Health England and the Royal College of GPs.

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Speaking to The Mirror, Chris Phillips, the former head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, said that the disinformation campaign is being led and managed by Russian cyber units who are intent on destabilising the UK and the West.

'The Russians have long felt that the UK, America and the European Union is a major threat to them so have developed major strategies in how to interfere with politics, policy, and now it seems the interference is impacting on vital decisions in our daily lives. The art of being able to exert this control over a society is arguably one of the most powerful weapons available in modern warfare.

'If the Russian government, or whoever, wishes to exert this kind of influence, is able to cause difficulty in decisions, in trusting the government of the day in that country, or otherwise trusted media and news organisations, then so much the better for them,' he added.

According to The Mirror, the government is investigating whether fake news and disinformation over vaccination programmes were the primary reasons behind an outbreak of measles in Liverpool and Leeds last week. It is believed that unvaccinated children picked up the virus from abroad and are now spreading it to the rest of the public.

'The emergence of ‘fake news’ is happening every day. It spreads fear and distrust through lies and misinformation. Military chiefs have long prepared for this, but we are battling an ever-increasing threat with new methods evolving every day,' Phillips added.

Responding to the fact that a number of citizens do not want to get their children vaccinated, a spokesman for Public Health England said that it is important for parents to take up the offer of the MMR vaccination for their children whenever offered.

'When we get vaccinated, or take our children for their vaccinations, we protect ourselves and our loved ones. We have an exceptional and trusted vaccination programme offered through the NHS for people at every stage of life.

'Vaccines have to be thoroughly tested for safety before they’re made routinely available. If you are unsure if you are up to date with all immunisations, speak to your GP or use other trusted sources like the NHS Choices website,' he added.

Earlier this month, Ciaran Martin, chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre, said that the Russian government is regularly targeting the UK's energy, media and telecommunication industries to vitiate the international order.

Speaking at an event organised by The Times, Martin said that continuous cyber-attacks sponsored by Russia were eroding the international order. 'The prime minister made the point on Monday night - international order as we know it is in danger of being eroded. This is clearly a cause for concern and the NCSC is actively engaging with international partners, industry and civil society to tackle this threat,' he said.