Labeling some speech as ‘mis-and-disinformation’ has become a convenient way for governments to justify tracking and attempting to control the expression of dissenting views, including those of journalists and MPs, as a new report from the UK shows.
A new report from UK civil liberties and privacy advocates Big Brother Watch, reveals the shocking but predictable fact that the British government has been spying, tracking and censoring its own citizens, politicians and journalists, over the supposed threat of ‘misinformation’.
Ministry of Truth: the secretive government units spying on your speech compiles information received through Official Information Act requests and Subject Access Reports (when a citizen requests information held on them by government agencies) to uncover five secretive and largely unaccountable units embedded in Government ministries that have been monitoring, reporting and actively censoring the public and important arms of democratic machinery in covid times.
Big Brother Watch founder and director Silkie Carlo said it had uncovered an alarming case of mission creep, in which public money and military power were being misused against the British people.
“The fact that this political monitoring happened under the guise of ‘countering misinformation’ highlights how, absent serious safeguards, the concept of ‘wrong information’ is open to abuse and has become a blank cheque the government uses in [an] attempt to control narratives online.
“Contrary to their stated aims, these government truth units are secretive and harmful to our democracy. The Counter Disinformation Unit should be suspended immediately and subject to a full investigation,” she said.
The units revealed are:
The Rapid Response Unit (RRU), part of the Cabinet Office tasked with “tackling a range of harmful narratives online” during the pandemic, “from purported ‘experts’ issuing dangerous misinformation, to criminal fraudsters running phishing scams”.
The Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU) monitors what it deems to be disinformation and flags content to social media companies, sits inside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
Government Information Cell (GIC) focused on identifying and countering Russian disinformation in the UK and abroad in response to the war in Ukraine. It was established by the Foreign Office.
Research, Intelligence and Communications Unit (RICU) operates to push official lines that support counter-extremism and has even set up domestic front organisations to publish propaganda. It sits within the Home Office.
The 77th Brigade is a Ministry of Defence counter disinformation unit, made up “a combined Regular and Army Reserve unit” which aims to “challenge the difficulties of modern warfare using non-lethal engagement and legitimate non-military levers as a means to adapt behaviours of the opposing forces and adversaries”.
Examples of monitoring
Conservative MP David Davis’s views on modelling from Imperial College during the pandemic drew the attention of the DCMS disinformation team and were monitored and recorded, a Subject Access Report established. It wasn’t revealed which specific statements from Davis warranted attention but mentions him as “critical of the government”. In the weeks preceding his inclusion in monitoring documents, he posted tweets questioning the model and co-authored a Daily Telegraph article questioning the mathematical reasoning underpinning the Imperial College model that influenced the UK government’s early covid-19 decision-making.
Subsequently, Davis said:
“Big Brother Watch’s findings should set alarm bells ringing for anyone who knows the dangers of the overmighty state. Journalists, politicians and members of the public should all be free to air their views without examination by Government agencies.
“Privacy and free speech are fundamentally important values. But in the war on ‘misinformation’, they are being put at risk. It is time for a serious rethink at the heart of Government.”
Journalist, broadcaster and political commentator Julia Hartley-Brewer was featured repeatedly in a report commissioned by DCMS, titled “Covid-19 Mis/Disinformation Platform Terms of Service Report”. Hartley-Brewer had posted tweets that were recorded in the report that suggest that the contractor was “stretching its remit and broadening the definition of disinformation to include comments critical of the government”, Big Brother Watch noted in its report.
Other journalists monitored by the CDU were Laura Dodsworth, author of State of Fear, a book examining the use of a behavioural insights team to ‘nudge’ the British public into covid compliance using fear, and Toby Young, associate editor of the Spectator, editor-in-chief of the Daily Sceptic and director of the Free Speech Union.
Particular attention was also paid to opposition to vaccine passports by these monitoring units, including a campaign run by Big Brother Watch about the human rights implications of such a policy. What’s even more concerning is that this was an issue that had yet to be decided on in parliament at the time of monitoring and reporting.
The Ministry of Truth report put it like this: “The issue of covid-19 passports was a controversial, live and important debate in Britain at the time. It is very worrying that a private company, at the behest of the government, secretly monitored, recorded and reported on mainstream political dissent under the guise of tackling “disinformation”.
Army resources used to monitor the public, initially denied then admitted
Big Brother Watch’s report includes an exclusive whistle-blower account, revealing that the information warfare unit’s activities is far different than stated. In spite of claims to the contrary by senior generals, troops did spy on the British public. The whistle-blower lifted the lid on the “sentiment analysis” the 77th Brigade conducted, looking at how people viewed the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Then last week, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told parliament that the 77th Brigade “uses (…) material shared on social media platforms to assess UK disinformation trends.”
The statement appears to contradict earlier claims by the British Army, made in reference to the public disclosure of their covid-focused “counter-disinformation” work, that the 77th Brigade “do not, and have never, conducted any kind of action against British citizens” and that “all work is internationally focused.”
Carlo said in a statement that it raises serious questions about the accuracy of previous official statements.
“It is deeply concerning that the Defense Secretary appeared to suggest that military power has been intentionally deployed towards social media users in the UK.
“His statement would suggest that the whistle-blower’s claims do not just reveal the wrongdoing of a military unit gone rogue, but that they reveal the intentional assignment of the British Army to assess lawful speech within Britain, which appears to be condoned at the highest level.
“Any misuse of military resources designed for foreign adversaries on our own soil would be Orwellian in the extreme and absolutely scandalous, particularly at a time when our armed forces’ resources are depleted. It is vital that the 77th Brigade’s digital activities in the UK are urgently investigated,” Carlo concluded.
Other key findings of the report
Many of us have long suspected that governments were working with the big tech to influence public opinion and debate by shutting down discussion and information sharing from those who were questioning the narrative around covid-19, vaccinations, or any aspects of the weird events of the last three years. We can be increasingly sure of it, as this report reveals. Well worth reading in full, some of the shocking findings of the Ministry of Truth report include:
- Soldiers from the Army’s 77th Brigade collated tweets from British citizens about Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic and passed them to the Cabinet Office. Troops also conducted “sentiment analysis” about the government’s Covid-19 response.
- The Rapid Response Unit [Cabinet Office] pressured a Whitehall department to attack newspapers for publishing articles analysing covid-19 modelling that it feared would “affect compliance” with pandemic restrictions.
- RRU staff featured Conservative MPs, activists and journalists in “vaccine hesitancy reports” for opposing vaccine passports.
- The Counter Disinformation Unit [DCMS] has a special relationship with social media companies it uses to recommend content be removed. Third party contractors trawled Twitter for perceived terms of service violations and passed them to CDU officials.
- Front organisations aimed at minority communities were set up by the Research, Communications and Intelligence Unit [Home Office] to spread government propaganda in the UK.
Gavin Millar KC, a British legal expert on media and free speech said the secrecy surrounding these activities was worrying because citizens couldn’t be sure that their rights to freedom of speech, privacy and data protection were being respected by the state.
“It is particularly concerning that political speech unwelcome to the government is being targeted, without any apparent safeguards to ensure compliance with the law.
“There are no obvious security or intelligence issues about most of these activities. So there must now be the fullest possible transparency and oversight by Parliament, as well as scrutiny by the courts,” he said.
The report makes clear that the UK government definition of disinformation has come to encompass domestic criticism of government policy. Given that this is then used to censor information, including politicians and journalists in the legitimate course of their work – which includes scrutinising government policy and action – the threat to free speech is obvious.