“Government cracks down on spread of false coronavirus information online,” announced a UK Government press release on March 30, 2020. “Specialist units” are tackling dangerous misinformation, disinformation, criminal fraudsters, and “false and misleading narratives”, we were told.
But, as Big Brother Watch revealed on Sunday, the activities of these units went far beyond refuting claims such as “gargling warm water cures Covid”. The Counter Disinformation Unit, first used in 2019 to monitor potential interference in elections, was intended to combat deliberately misleading online content. In March 2020, however, its scope was extended to include misinformation and to work even more closely with social media platforms. This may not be an official censorship regime — departments have a hotline to these platforms to ask that material is removed — but it is a very easy way for the Government to reduce the spread of posts it disapproves of.
Based in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the CDU has also been active in relation to COP26 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Freedom of Information requests and questions from MPs have failed to discover its budget or how many people it employs. The Big Brother Watch report has, however, identified a number of contracts with firms which specialise in using AI and automated systems to detect “harmful and illegal content” online.
During the first months of the pandemic, both medical theories and government policies were highly contested. Epidemiologist Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of Sage, criticised lockdowns as a policy response to Covid as early as August 2020, while a number of experts openly disagreed over the assumptions underlying the computer models used to make policy decisions, including the Imperial College model used to justify the first national lockdown in March 2020. Nevertheless, public questioning of Covid policies, or close examination of the scientific evidence, was enough to earn an appearance on the weekly CDU report. Conservative MP David Davis was among those cited as “critical of the Government” after he questioned, on Twitter and in the Daily Telegraph, the mathematical reasoning of the Imperial model.
Similarly, when vaccines against Covid were created, the CDU worked to counter a number of falsehoods, including the conspiracy that they make people (especially those from ethnic minorities) infertile, or the fanciful idea that they would turn people into monkeys. But the CDU didn’t stop there. Included in its file on “vaccine sceptics”, for instance, were many who objected not to vaccines, but to policy measures such as vaccine passports or mandated vaccination for care workers. Here, a matter of public debate was deemed beyond discussion — and turned into a target of countermeasures by a state unit that is not even subject to scrutiny by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.
Nor is the CDU the only unit engaged in this kind of narrative-management. The Cabinet Office has its own Rapid Response Unit (RRU), set up in 2018 and focused since 2020 on rebutting or removing (via social media platforms) “false and misleading narratives” about coronavirus. It monitors both social and traditional media, reporting on engagement with narratives and countering (or suppressing) those it deems harmful.
The RRU also uses media monitoring services which can report on audience demographics as well as content and sentiment analysis. Even sharing news articles critical of government Covid policies was enough to get an RRU flag. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, for example, appeared in RRU analysis, after voicing concerns about the effectiveness of localised restrictions. Expert criticism of data used in public briefings, personal testimonies of the impact of anti-Covid restrictions, and even jokes about the complexity of travel rules, were all included on RRU lists. Here, the scope of RRU activities goes far beyond false information to include opinions that question or contradict government policies. Again, it’s hard to see this as misinformation, let alone disinformation.
Yet for the Government, this was war. According to a whistleblower from the 77th Brigade, normally the British Army’s cyber-warfare unit, extra personnel were recruited to monitor social media for keywords — ostensibly looking for accounts that might be foreign agents spreading disinformation, but with no measures in place to ensure they were “not being directed at the UK population”.
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The whistleblower claims that screenshots of social media posts were collected and sent to the Cabinet Office. “We learned… that the Government were very keen on hearing what the public thought about their Covid-19 response and how scared people were,” said “AB”. “However, these posts did not contain information that was untrue or co-ordinated — it was simply fear and domestic dissent.”
The UK is not the only country to invoke the spectre of disinformation to seek to control public conversations. Greece passed a law against spreading false information in 2021, with a penalty of five years in prison, while Malaysia used emergency powers to pass a “fake news” law imposing jail terms for anyone spreading “wholly or partly false” information about either the pandemic or the state of emergency itself. Elsewhere, Turkey passed a law in October last year which threatens those who spread misleading news with prison, and social media platforms with fines for failure to remove content or disclose a user’s identity. Arrests have already been made.
But, as the wide-ranging activities of the UK’s CDU, the RRU and even the 77th Brigade reveal, allowing governments to define what counts as disinformation and misinformation is a slippery slope. As they extend their powers beyond falsifiable facts to policy debates, and even narratives, there is no limit to who can find themselves under scrutiny.
Throughout the pandemic the Government displayed a woeful lack of trust in the population to make sensible decisions, to act in a public-spirited manner, and to understand complex and changing information about a novel disease. Suppression of dissent and discussion is a symptom of that low opinion of the public. It’s the same paternalism that suffuses the Online Safety Bill: the politicians offering to keep us safe online by requiring technology companies to exercise a poorly defined “duty of care” are the same politicians working with those same companies to remove critics of its policies from the public square.
Government departments cracking down on false coronavirus information to protect us from dangerous falsehoods and malicious conspiracy theories? Don’t take their word for it. It’s Fake News.