Government’s secret counter-disinformation policies revealed

Big Brother Watch Team / June 1, 2024

Government’s secret counter-disinformation policies revealed

Big Brother Watch has been investigating secretive government counter-disinformation units in the UK, and pushing back against their opaque, censorial activities.

Set up on the premise of combatting ‘disinformation’, the reality we’ve uncovered is that these units have been monitoring the lawful, accurate online speech of MPs, academics, journalists, human rights campaigners and the public when they disagree with government policies. We discovered that speech that was critical of government policies, and even of individual ministers, was being collated and circulated in so-called ‘disinformation reports’, despite the content not fitting remotely within any reasonable definition of disinformation.

Subject Access Requests submitted by individuals affected

In a democracy, is it vital that we are allowed to criticise and debate government policy – without being wrongly smeared as sharing ‘misinformation’, or being censored online.

“National security” and censorship

After our revelations inspired significant backlash from parliamentarians, the press and the public, the government rebranded their “Counter Disinformation Unit” as the “National Security Online Information Team” (‘NSOIT’). The government has been at pains to emphasise the unit’s national security role, in an effort to distance themselves from the overreach of the CDU.

But how much has really changed? It took us months of digging and applying pressure, but we finally got hold of NSOIT’s new policies, which we are publishing today here.

NSOIT draft data protection and compliance policy

Tellingly, there are almost no references to national security in their policy document. Instead, the policy document states that NSOIT’s function is “to build a picture of mis/disinformation threats”.

As well as covering national security, NSOIT’s broad remit also includes issues relating to “public safety”. Publicly the government is seeking to deflect criticism of NSOIT by claiming it has a national security remit, and focuses on foreign threats rather than domestic speech. In its policy document however, it is clear that the unit’s remit for analysis is virtually limitless.

While it states that any ‘collection activity’ must be linked to an “identifiable and legitimate policy objective of the government department,” this is scarcely a restraint – it is precisely what we are concerned about. Government policy could include almost any issue. NSOIT policy states it “does not seek to capture genuine political debate”. The designation of some political debate as ‘genuine’ and some as not is concerning – and ripe for abuse.

The policy also states that that:

  • monitoring can only be overt (e.g. looking at publicly accessible X/Twitter posts) rather than covert (e.g. looking at private messages)

  • directed surveillance is NOT permitted – i.e. NSOIT must search for content rather than individuals; they cannot repeatedly target individuals for monitoring, although it is acceptable that the same individuals may come up in their content searches repeatedly

  • sustained monitoring for disinformation narratives” must have ministerial agreement – this was sought in relation to Russia/Ukraine and Covid-19, for example

  • NSOIT will reduce the personal data held on their records – which, whilst good for privacy, could mean that using ‘subject access requests’ to find out if you’ve been affected by the unit (which were the basis of our investigation) is now far less likely to be successful

Legal but harmful

NSOIT is still required to flag content to social media platforms, if the content is considered to be harmful, violates the platform’s Terms of Service, or represents an emerging threat. These vague categories offer no protections from lawful speech being by flagged by NSOIT analysts for removal. Indeed, social media platforms’ Terms of Service restrict speech far beyond the law, and by working with platforms to have content removed, this policy could undermine the government’s obligations to uphold freedom of expression.

While NSOIT’s policy states that it does not flag content from journalists, political parties, parliamentarians or elected officials, this two tier system only serves to highlight the risk NSOIT poses to free speech online. What is it that journalists and MPs need protecting from, if these policies pose no threat to freedom of speech? Why are members of the public not afforded the same protection from censorship?

Next steps

We’ve sought legal advice on NSOIT’s policy and we believe that without an individual who we know has been affected by NSOIT censorship, the prospects of winning a legal challenge are low to none. This is the frustratingly Kafkaesque nature of so many of the surveillance and censorship issues we work on – secrecy makes these issues very difficult to challenge.

We’re already winning

However, despite NSOIT’s permissive policy, our investigation indicates that we have had a huge impact on government counter-disinformation activity in practice – not only did the government close down one counter-misinformation unit altogether (the Rapid Response Unit), but NSOIT is being far more cautious than its predecessor.

Today we can reveal that that the number of times the government flagged speech to social media platforms has plummeted by 95% since we published our investigation. This means far less backdoor censorship by the government – exactly what we sought out to achieve.

Our campaign is by no means over. With a new government expected within weeks, new hands will be on the reins of the government’s counter-disinformation units.

We’ll be keeping a very close eye on them.


You can find links to the policy documents we obtained below:

National Security Online Information Team Data Protection and Compliance Policy document

National Security Online Information Team privacy notice – GOV.UK

Report – Ministry of Truth: The secretive government units spying on your speech