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Government censorship unit sees 95% fall in ‘flagged’ online content

Is free speech coming back to Britain? Credit: Getty

June 1, 2024 - 8:00am

Is the tide turning against the censorship-industrial complex? Just weeks after the UK Government confirmed it would no longer fund the Global Disinformation Index, which blacklisted UnHerd, there is fresh evidence that the censorship machine is breaking down.

According to new FOI data, the Government’s secretive Counter-Disinformation Unit (CDU) has drastically reduced its “flagging” of online speech to social media companies by 95%. In 2020 the number of “flags” was 779, meaning that at least three cases of online speech per working day were reported by this government unit to social media companies for removal. But over the next three years, this number fell from 785 in 2021 to just 35 pieces of content were flagged after Big Brother Watch (BBW) launched an investigation into the practice.

Back in 2021, when I first wrote for UnHerd about the CDU, little was known about the cell. Ministers, though, gave us clues. In a parliamentary debate, one said that the CDU’s job was to get so-called disinformation “taken down” and revealed that “in some cases, ministers have engaged directly with social media firms as well to encourage them to remove content that is clearly inappropriate.” Since then the Government has publicly stated that the unit’s focus has turned from Covid to the war in Ukraine, elections and even Operation London Bridge following the death of the Queen.

It speaks to the dismal state of free speech in the UK that these statements not only went unchallenged, but in many cases were chastised as not going far enough by the official opposition in Parliament, with Labour calling for the unit to be used to police online discourse and debate regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict.

We now know that the mechanism for this extra-legal censorship was a formal relationship between the CDU and many of the major social media firms known as “trusted flagger status”. This is a hotline between civil servants and social media companies, meaning CDU “flags” prompting the removal of expression online were put to the front of the queue. But despite the free speech implications, the Government refused to reveal any information about the work of the unit, even obscuring the release of information about its resources — making it even more secretive than the intelligence agencies.

Less censorship is of course good news for free speech in the UK. However, the rebranded unit, now called the National Security Online Information Team, is now working with limited transparency on disinformation around the general election. While little is known about this rebrand or whether it makes a material difference to the unit’s work, it is clear that the ability to flag online speech and lean on platforms to remove it remains. This leaves the Government with a potent tool, which could be used to materially shape online discourse in the hands of the next government.

While the spectre of the censorship-industrial complex still looms, this episode shows that vociferously standing up for free speech can bring results. The wider danger is that extra-legal censorship legitimised by fears about disinformation has now been normalised. In the UK, our Ministry of Truth is less active but still operating. As ever the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


Mark Johnson is Advocacy Manager at Big Brother Watch.

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laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
23 days ago

My first thought: I wonder what they’re really up to?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
23 days ago

Big Brother Watch is the only serious organisation campaigning for free speech and against censorship and privacy concerns such as facial recognition cameras in the UK.
Unherd readers would do well to lend their support to this small but extremely effective group, a David battling the censorship industrial complex Goliath. Without campaigns such as these we may well not have Unherd articles on which to comment in a not too distant future.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
23 days ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

The “Free Speech Union” also deserves more support.

Tessa B
Tessa B
21 days ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Thanks Rocky for highlighting the perilousness of various goings on.
I would like to further comment…
Michael Shellenberger is on the panel here:
https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/are-liberals-leaving-free-speech-behind-panel-mighty-ira-screening-tickets-917219918467
I am very much on a learning curve, but I am hoping that everyone at Big Brother Watch etc appreciates that although various campaigners, academics, think tanks and thinkers are on the free speech case, we all need to be aware of the differences of opinion regarding for example, corporate influence on science and technology.
Will everyone on the above panel and those who have signed/are involved with the Westminster Declaration, academia etc be prepared to fight for the right of others to disagree with them. Well no in the main they will not, it’s not what happens on the ground. It’s a complicated, frustrating, perhaps dark and little understood issue, layers and layers of complications and sometimes organised manipulation (see link regulatory science as propaganda).
Food for thought:
https://abiggerconversation.org/regulatory-science-as-propaganda/
https://psgr.org.nz/component/jdownloads/send/1-root/106-23-propaganda
Michael Shellenberger…an opinion on……
https://informedheart.substack.com/p/arc-legatum-and-fake-freedom-funds
“The Censorship Industrial Complex, Omidyar and Freedom FundHere, the subtext is another way that this totalitarianism is imploding in on itself. Albeit not quite so obvious to the man-in-the-street. Journalist Michael Shellenberger, who is central to the release of the Twitter Files and coined the term Censorship Industrial Complex (pdf of his legal testimony) in a massive US Court battle, has joined the Board of a company which is funded by the same Omidyar Group that is the Censorship Industrial Complex. (See pg14 of his hyperlinked testimony above). How can this be? Let me explain……” ??
Corporate Take over of our International (and National?) Institutions?
https://www.etcgroup.org/issues/international-governance

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
23 days ago

Excellent news. That’s why I support publications like Unherd – they are vigilant supporters of free speech.

Tessa B
Tessa B
20 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I very much support UnHerd, Big Brother Watch…they are vigilant supporters of free speech, but I am also confused?
If one of the elephants in the room is the “free trade deregulation monster” or “free trade fairy” (depending on your ideologies)…. and there will be many elephants…..then has not UnHerd, Big Brother Watch and Michael Shellenberger have some questions to answer?
On 4 June 2021 my reminder on facebook, I off loaded on my time line:
“Facebook have removed comments of mine regarding the precautionary principle, pesticides, patents, emerging technologies, Brexit, free trade agreements, agribusiness blah blah. I cannot remember the groups and dates but 3 messages in a row from fb. Removed…..spam and more. No specific details as to why, but at least they notified me.
Odd to say the least. Free speech good byeeeeeeee” 4 June 2021
I had a facebook post removed recently regarding gene editing and deregulation a few weeks ago. I was also placed on some sort of naughty step.
So who are they? What are they up to?
Note Big Brother Watch’s Mark Littlewood here and my other comments.
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jul/29/rightwing-thinktank-ministerial-access-potential-us-donors-insitute-of-economic-affairs-brexit
Alison McDowell
https://wrenchinthegears.com/2017/09/29/omidyar-the-intercept-impact-investing/

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
23 days ago

I wonder how much of this is because so much political discussion has moved to Substack, which being newer and smaller simply doesn’t care what the UK government thinks.

j watson
j watson
23 days ago

Parliamentary accountability a must.
Something to combat AI generated fake news and images is important and a development we couldn’t have foreseen a few years ago.

Tessa B
Tessa B
21 days ago

It’s worth checking out the Big Brother Watch Team* and Michael Shellenberger’s membership of ARC (panel discussion 19 June coming up, Chair Freddie Sayers).
https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/team/
*Various tenuous connections including Legatum, Institute of Economic Affairs*, Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) and more. Some of the signatories of the Westminster Declaration…disagreeing viewpoints are allowed between the signatories? But are we actually always allowed to disagree…??
Google Desmog Alliance for Responsible Citizenship if interested.
https://hopenothate.org.uk/2023/11/23/alliance-for-responsible-citizenship-who-are-they/ ??
Not sure what to make of it all??
https://informedheart.substack.com/p/arc-legatum-and-fake-freedom-funds
Too complicated to understand.

Tessa B
Tessa B
19 days ago

https://x.com/TuckerCarlson/status/1795500379578253729
Jeffrey Sachs with probably the smartest and most accurate assessment of the Ukraine war, and American foreign policy more broadly, ever caught on tape.
(20:17) Why did America push for Ukraine to Join NATO?
(58:34) What is a Neocon?
(1:25:28) Regime Change Never Works
(1:36:27) Who Blew up the Nord Stream Pipeline?
(2:01:45) COVID Origins
Note the British, Wellcome Trust and permitted narrative last 20 mins.

Tessa B
Tessa B
18 days ago

“…Finally, I’d like to repeat that imho the only really bad thing in the amendments was the tacit agreement to censor “misinformation” and “disinformation.” But this should not surprise us. Governments love this power, whether they are rich or poor, and no one is forcing them to do it. By embedding this in the IHR, they have made censorship a norm. Works for them. However, most constitutions include “free speech” and so censorship is unconstitutional. What we need to do is to challenge this at the level of our nation states, where the important censorship battles will be fought…” Meryl Nass today.
https://merylnass.substack.com/p/david-bells-assessment-of-the-whos