The Government’s “Ministry of Truth” has been exposed. The Orwellian collection of secretive units across Government departments that claim to counter misinformation has been found to in fact monitor and record critics of the Government and its policies. The units were practically hyperactive during the pandemic, scribbling down any divergent utterance by anyone with an audience online – from journalists to world-leading experts and even MPs.
Civil servants in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport lead the government’s shadowy truth enforcement service, supported by officials in the Cabinet Office. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is the involvement of the highly secretive 77th Brigade of the British Army – a unit that specialises in “non-lethal engagement” against “adversaries” and has been described as an “information warfare machine”. Politicians and the public have been quite happy about this activity on the premise it was directed at Chinese and Russian troll farms, but now we know the chilling truth: it was actually aimed at us.
Journalists and politicians, including ex-minister and civil libertarian David Davis MP, were flagged by the government’s truth units for sharing articles that gave even-handed analyses of key public policies – from mass testing to the vaccine roll-out – where they included voices critical of government policies. It is a disastrous case of mission creep, where a blank cheque to combat disinformation turned into a license to monitor and censor dissent.
It’s unlikely to be a total coincidence that some of the individuals these units were repeatedly flagging – David Davis MP, columnist Peter Hitchens, and Oxford Professor Carl Heneghan – were also subjected to inexplicable censorship on social media platforms. The government has “trusted flagger” status with the tech companies, meaning anything they flag gets special attention and fast. A video of David Davis’ speech against vaccine passports was scrubbed from YouTube; Peter Hitchens believes a video in which he criticised lockdowns was suppressed from search results; Professor Heneghan was temporarily suspended on Twitter and articles about his academic studies on Facebook marked as “false”. These incidents were branded ‘errors’ and reversed as soon as enough public backlash grew. But the damage had already been done.
Now that Whitehall is, hopefully, sobering up from this intoxicating period of authoritarianism (or the endless parties they were having whilst we were locked up), we need to properly account for this damage. Otherwise, our democracy might never be the same again. The hangover has left us with a now permanent Counter Disinformation Unit stationed in DCMS and redeployed to monitor narratives on an array of government business that is so secretive, even the Intelligence and Security Committee – which is supposed to oversee spooks, not SpAds – has complained that government is refusing to permit oversight of the work.
The dossier of revelations published about the Counter Disinformation Unit’s work – from political surveillance to the evasion of oversight – show the unit is not fit for purpose. It should be suspended immediately and subjected to a full investigation. But the bigger questions arising from this exposé are precisely what governments mean when they talk about combating “misinformation”, and how much control they should have over the information we’re allowed to see, hear, read and share. While disinformation is more clearly defined as falsehoods spread deliberately to deceive people, often by foreign hostile states, misinformation is an uncomfortably nebulous word referring to “wrong information” that seems to be used to camouflage the desires of those in power.
As it happens, none of the social media posts flagged by the counter-misinformation units in this damning investigation was actually inaccurate, only inconvenient. But if they had been, one could argue they were in the right place – an open forum where they could be scrutinised and challenged. As Lord Sumption wrote, “we cannot discover truth without accommodating error.” If we exchange our faith in a free and open exchange for a reliance on state or technological information control in order for truth to prevail, we abandon the very premise of free speech, and the free society it promises.
Silkie Carlo – Big Brother Watch Director