Big Brother Watch fact checks the Government’s ‘fact sheet’ on two secretive Government units: the Counter Disinformation Unit and the Rapid Response Unit.
Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU)
What is the Counter Disinformation Unit?
The CDU is not limited to understanding “attempts to artificially manipulate the information environment” or to “disinformation narratives”. This is evident from the CDU’s own reports, which contain significant amount of information on general political statements and criticisms made of government policy whether by MPs, journalists, academics or campaigners.
For example, Logically AI, a private company handed more than £1 million worth public sector contracts to help the CDU with “misinformation” monitoring, collated posts from UK activists promoting their campaign against a controversial government policy.
Big Brother Watch Advocacy Manager Mark Johnson’s tweet sharing a petition on the official House of Commons website featured in a ‘Covid Mis/Disinformation Report’.12 House of Commons petitions are vetted by Parliamentary officials to make sure they meet certain standards and to describe tweet sharing one as a “disinformation narrative” or an attempt to “artificially manipulate the information environment” is clearly incorrect.
What areas does the CDU work across?
What sort of disinformation did the CDU refer to social media companies?
It is possible that the CDU “focuses” on content posing a risk to public health, public safety or national security, but without transparency we cannot verify what they “focus” on. What we do know is that the CDU is by no means limited to such content and has monitored significant amounts of content that poses no risk at all in these three areas.
Whilst the Government presents the CDU as a bulwark against hostile foreign state actors online or online trends that present a threat to life, such as drinking bleach to cure Covid-19, in its limited document disclosures and responses to questions in Parliament government has admitted to the CDU looking at Operation London Bridge [the death of the Queen].1 Although this was a significant national moment it is difficult to see how even the fringe debates around the Queen’s passing could harm public health, safety or national security – while any genuine security threats will have been left to intelligence agencies and organisations with law enforcement powers.
Subject Access Requests have also revealed that explicit criticism of the government from mainstream sources were included in reports produced by the CDU or its contractors. These included:
- Dr Alex de Figueiredo, an academic at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was identified as potential source of “misinformation” on Twitter for questioning the necessity of vaccinating all children against Covid-19. He is the statistics lead at the Vaccine Confidence Project [aimed at understanding vaccine scepticism and reducing vaccine inequalities] and shared a post in February 2022 questioning the policy based on his own expertise.4
- A radio interview by Julia Hartley-Brewer with someone who had suffered significantly during lockdown and was sharing her experiences of the difficulties of the government policy.5
It is evident that neither of these examples could constitute a threat to the health, safety or security of anything except the government’s reputation.
An academic who is a lead figure in work understanding and reducing vaccine scepticism would not post on Twitter questioning the universal rollout of the Covid-19 jab to young children unless thought there was a compelling reason to do so. The universal vaccination of children was a topic of significant debate with the JCVI initially advising against offering all teenagers the jab before being overruled by the UK’s Chief Medical Officers in September 2021- illustrating how the subject was a live topic of debate and that Dr de Figueiredo was contributing to this, and cannot be argued to be presenting any risk to public safety or health.
Journalists are free to interview a wide range of people, including those negatively impacted by government policies and regardless of whether lockdown was the correct policy during the pandemic people were and are free to criticise it. Unless the CDU goes so far as to consider anybody questioning lockdown due to their own difficult lived experience as a threat to public health, placing government policy above criticism, it is reasonably clear to anyone that Julia Hartley-Brewer’s interview cannot be seen as a disinformation narrative or compared to recommending bleach as a cure for Covid-19.
These two examples highlight that the CDU was monitoring content way outside the realm that any reasonable person could see as a risk to “public health, safety or national security”. Officials may cite the most shocking examples, of Russian state-sponsored trolling or bleach being touted as a cure for Covid, but the records show that the CDU monitored swathes of content that was reasonable criticism of the government and clearly not a threat.
How does the CDU ensure freedom of expression?
How does the CDU conduct its monitoring work?
Data might be anonymised “wherever possible” but presenting it in this way is wilfully misleading. Big Brother Watch has seen hundreds of pages of documents from Subject Access Requests to the CDU and there are significant amounts of identifiable information in there, from Twitter handles to third parties being discussed in posts monitored by the CDU.6 The phrase “wherever possible” does a lot of heavy lifting when it is likely to be rarely possible to anonymise data when dealing with social media accounts.
How does the CDU work with social media platforms?
Government claims that content is only referred to social media companies when it is assessed to both present a risk to public health, safety or national security, and is assessed to breach platform terms. However, data provided to Big Brother Watch by Twitter shows that only 42 per cent of the CDU’s reports were deemed to actually breach Twitter’s terms.7 During the pandemic Twitter’s Covid-19 misinformation policy was very broad and the low hit rate suggests that the CDU either reported content clearly not breaching the terms, or its assessments were seriously flawed.
The CDU also enjoys a hotline to the major social media platforms through its trusted flagger status and has direct regular contact with staff there. This privileged access means that CDU flags are likely taken more seriously than ordinary people doing so. Meta’s independent Oversight Board found that state-backed flags to Facebook were much more likely to be acted on without question than others when it ruled that Facebook was wrong to remove a drill video at the request of the Metropolitan Police.8
Was the CDU a secret?
The existence of the CDU was not a secret and it is the responsibility of ministers who are ultimately accountable to Parliament. However the CDU’s workings and activities remain a closely guarded secret with the unit refusing to reveal basic information such as its budget or staffing levels, or disclose how often it reports content to the social media companies.
Big Brother Watch has submitted at least 20 FOI requests to DCMS and DSIT about the CDU, 19 of which were rejected in full and one received a response containing heavily redacted minutes. Our questions have ranged from the simple [staffing and budget levels] to requests for reports commissioned by the CDU and emails it has exchanged with social media companies. 14 of these transparency requests have been refused with explicit sign off from ministers, with the department claiming that information as basic as the public money spent on the unit would undermine its capabilities.
MPs have also repeatedly asked ministers to reveal the resources available to the CDU [12 times], and the amount of content it has flagged for review [19 times]. Ministers have refused to answer these reasonable questions by MPs on every occasion. Even the intelligence agencies make some resourcing details public, as does the Rapid Response Unit and the Research, Intelligence and Communications Unit in the Home Office which deals with narratives on extremism and terrorism.
The CDU’s existence may not be a secret but its department refuses point blank to publish any information asked for via Freedom of Information Requests or by MPs in the House of Commons. Any claim that DSIT “welcomes” scrutiny of the CDU is highly questionable as it refuses to be subjected to any.
Rapid Response Unit (RRU)
What was the RRU? / Why was it set up?
False: the RRU was much more than a “digital cuttings service”, and it did have contact with social media companies. Alex Aiken, who heads the Government Communication Service, wrote in 2018 when the RRU was established that it was set up to “support the reclaiming of a fact-based public debate”. He also described some of the RRU’s earlier work which included “activating” social media content or ensuring that government-approved information on Syria was high in Google search results.9
A letter from Mr Aiken to Paul Wyatt, a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, said that the RRU “continued to monitor and address disinformation” and requested help from the 77th Brigade to “provide greater capacity and capability to monitor and respond to disinformation” with the RRU.9
Chloe Smith MP, then a junior Cabinet Office minister, told the House of Commons in 2019 that the RRU “ensures government communications are impactful and that we are able to act with speed to ensure we tackle false information identified online, promoting a fact-based public debate.”11
From these statements it is clear that the RRU was much more than a digital cuttings service. The government wants to make the RRU appear to be a benign operation which just monitored the traditional and social media landscape for how departments were perceived by the press and the public.
This is simply untrue. Statements from the RRU’s founder, a Cabinet Office minister and letters within government all show that the RRU was taking an active role and had influence on the public debate.
The claim that the RRU “never had any contact with social media companies” is demonstrably false. On April 10th, 2020 a member of the RRU emailed staff at Facebook asking they “urgently” delete a post on the platform from a courier who shared that he was delivering Covid-19 tests to centres the following morning. This is one of at least 6 occasions from April 2020 alone when the RRU flagged content, according to a Freedom of Information request response from the Cabinet Office.12
It is worrying that the government is willing to lie so brazenly about the RRU’s activities and raises questions about what else may have happened in the shadows.
What was the RRU’s data used for?
As laid out above the RRU’s founder has acknowledged that it actively promoted government-backed narratives online, while transparency requests found that the RRU did have contact with social media companies and demand content be removed. RRU also regularly “flagged” narratives and social media posts internally, but it is not known what happened in this case. Flags covered anything from Professor John Deeks arguing on Twitter that false negative rates in the lateral flow test trials were a cause for concern to a video of heavy handed police enforcement of lockdown rules going viral.13
In one example where documents were disclosed the RRU’s information was used to pressure other government departments into extraordinary attacks on the press. A November 2020 article in the Daily Mail which questioned the government’s Covid-19 epidemic modelling with many of the grim predictions not coming to pass, which slowly gained traction online. The RRU flagged the article to the Department of Health and asked them to respond because “these damaging claims could affect compliance” [with the Covid-19 restrictions]. Publicly DHSC branded the article as “misleading” despite initial concerns from the RRU being reputational. DHSC’s “rebuttal tweet”, following the RRU flag, erupted into a row about government censoring journalists and DHSC eventually deleted the Tweet.14
These examples demonstrate that the RRU was not just an ordinary media monitoring unit but sought to launder the government’s reputation, using techniques honed as it sought to tackle alleged misinformation following its establishment in 2018.
Was the RRU a secret?
The RRU has been marginally more transparent than the CDU via FOI and in answers to parliamentary questions but there are serious concerns about documents being deleted. Months worth of communication between the 77th Brigade and the Cabinet Office is no longer held by the government, despite the single daily report that survived showing how 77 Brigade soldiers working with the RRU included the Tweets of British citizens in their monitoring even though Army chiefs said British people would not be impacted.15
This vital investigation into secretive Government units monitoring speech online is a part of an ongoing Big Brother Watch campaign. Our goal is to shut down these ‘truth’ units to keep our online public spheres open & defend our fundamental right to free expression. The strength of our campaigns depends on your support. Help us shut down the Ministry of Truth
- Logically Contracts, page 6, Ministry of Truth, Big Brother Watch
- Mark Johnson misinformation flag, page 17, Ministry of Truth, Big Brother Watch
- Written Parliamentary Question by David Davis, UIN 160178, 7th March 2023
- Dr Alex de Figueiredo in Covid-19 Mis/Disinformation Report, page 20, Ministry of Truth, Big Brother Watch
- Julia Hartley-Brewer “report on online activity”, page 14, Ministry of Truth, Big Brother Watch
- Counter Disinformation Unit, Ministry of Truth, Big Brother Watch
- Twitter Refused Majority Of Removal Requests From Covid Spying Unit, Daily Telegraph, 10th June 2023
- Oversight Board Overturns Meta’s Decision in UK Drill Music Case, Meta Oversight Board, November 2022</li>
- Alex Aiken Introduces The Rapid Response Unit, Government Communications Service, July 2018
- Freedom of Information Request to the Cabinet Office, FOI202303259
- Written Parliamentary Question, UIN226754, 27th February 2019
- RRU Emails to Meta, page 58, Ministry of Truth, Big Brother Watch
- John Deeks RRU Flag, page 49, Ministry of Truth, Big Brother Watch
- Cabinet Office/Department of Health Emails re:Daily Mail Article, page 37, Ministry of Truth, Big Brother Watch
- Freedom of Information Requests to the Cabinet Office, FOI2022/13621, FOI2022/14378, FOI2022/16907, FOI2022/18187, FOI2022/15301, September 2022 to December 2022
To access our full report, Ministry of Truth: the secretive government units spying on your speech, click here.