INSIDE WHITEHALL’S MINISTRY OF TRUTH – HOW SECRETIVE “ANTI-MISINFORMATION” TEAMS CONDUCTED MASS DOMESTIC POLITICAL MONITORING
Secretive Whitehall units have been recording political dissent on social media under the guise of tackling misinformation, a Big Brother Watch investigation has found. Politicians, academics, activists, journalists and even members of the public have been subjected to monitoring by Whitehall officials, and an “information warfare machine” in the British Army.
- Anti-fake news units in the Cabinet Office and DCMS spent much of their time monitoring social media for political dissent, under the guise of “counter-disinformation” work.
- Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, Conservative MPs David Davis & Chris Green, journalists including Peter Hitchens and Julia Hartley-Brewer, and academics from the University of Oxford and University College London all had comments critical of the government recorded by the anti-fake news units.
- 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.
“Ministry of Truth: The Secretive Government Units Spying On Your Speech” is the first look at the government units using the façade of tackling fake news to conceal large-scale monitoring of the British public on social media. The report exposes the controversial activity of the shadowy units during the coronavirus pandemic in particular, during which they recorded the social media posts and press activity of politicians, academics and journalists who criticised the government’s handling of the crisis.
The units covered in the investigation include the Counter Disinformation Unit, which leads the domestic operational response for countering disinformation across government from the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, and the Rapid Response Unit in the Cabinet Office – both of which were highly active during the pandemic. It also examines the Foreign Office’s Government Information Cell and the Research, Intelligence and Communications Unit in the Home Office. According to the Cabinet Office, staff from the Rapid Response Unit have now been “transferred to the wider team” in government working on “tackling misinformation”. In December, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee complained of an “erosion of oversight” as the Government is “refusing” to expand its remit to include the Counter Disinformation Unit, among other units, creating a blind spot of secret government activity.
Some of the units were supported by Army’s 77th Brigade, which conducts information warfare. The investigation contains evidence from a 77th Brigade whistleblower that, in spite of claims to the contrary by senior generals, troops did spy on the British public. He lifts the lid on the “sentiment analysis” the 77th Brigade conducted, looking at how people viewed the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Big Brother Watch’s “Ministry of Truth” report is based on scores of Freedom of Information requests, and the co-operation of dozens of people in public life who submitted Subject Access Requests to the government to demand copies of their data held by the so-called disinformation units.
All of the public figures had comments criticising the government collected and analysed by one of the units. These ranged from quotes opposing comments on vaccine passports and travel restrictions to jokes about ministers’ hypocrisy.
Key examples of public figures caught up in the Whitehall anti-fake news units’ surveillance:
- David Davis MP featured in a Rapid Response Unit “vaccine hesitancy” report for arguing that vaccine passports were discriminatory and created a false sense of security.
- Chris Green MP and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s opposition to local lockdowns appeared in an RRU update on the Delta variant.
- Members of the British public discussing the pandemic online were monitored by the Army’s information warfare brigade on topics from government ventilator supplies to expressing fears over Covid-19’s link to blood clots.
- Cabinet Office officials pressured the Department for Health to attack the Daily Mail for daring to question Covid modelling because they were concerned it could undermine compliance with coronavirus restrictions.
- A post from UCL academic Dr Alexandre de Figueiredo, who researches vaccine confidence, was flagged by a contractor to the CDU because he argued that mass vaccination of children had risks, including to confidence in vaccines.
- Rapid Response Unit officials rushed to flag Professor Carl Heneghan’s Spectator article across Whitehall because he questioned whether the “rule of 6” was an arbitrary number.
- Journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer appeared in a similar report for tweeting about her interview with a woman who had suffered due to the care home policy during the lockdown.
Director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, said:
“This is an alarming case of mission creep, where public money and even military power have been misused to monitor academics, journalists, campaigners and members of parliament who criticised the government, particularly during the pandemic.
“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 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.”
Legal expert on media and free expression, Gavin Millar KC said:
“The secrecy surrounding the activities of these units is very worrying. Citizens cannot be sure that their rights to freedom of speech, privacy and data protection are being respected by the state unless it tells them what it is doing with their communications and information.
“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.”
David Davis MP 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.”
- Spokespeople are available for interview. Please contact Big Brother Watch’s 24/7 press phone on 07730439257 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- A copy of the full report, ‘Ministry of Truth: the secretive government units spying on your speech’, can be found here
- Digital assets accompanying this press release, including images of disclosed documents and a video clip of the 77th Brigade whistleblower, are available for fair use with attribution to Big Brother Watch, here.
- The 77th Brigade whistleblower’s full testimony is available pp.66-68 of the report. A video interview with the whistleblower will be published on our YouTube channel at 8pm today here.
- Big Brother Watch is holding an event in parliament to launch the report this evening (30th January 2023), 6-7.30pm. Speakers include David Davis MP, Gavin Millar KC, Julia Hartley-Brewer and Prof. Carl Heneghan. To request to attend, please email email@example.com
- The report is based on scores of Freedom of Information requests, Subject Access Requests, and parliamentary questions. All disclosures in the report are footnoted and referenced. A selection of the Freedom of Information requests referred to are linked to in full, here.