Critics of Covid restrictions were targeted by a counter-disinformation team at the heart of the Government, according to a Telegraph investigation. Here’s how it begins.
A secretive Government unit worked with social media companies in an attempt to curtail discussion of controversial lockdown policies during the pandemic, the Telegraph can reveal.
The Counter-Disinformation Unit (CDU) was set up by ministers to tackle supposed domestic “threats”, and was used to target those critical of lockdown and questioning the mass vaccination of children.
Critics of lockdown had posts removed from social media. There is growing suspicion that social media firms used technology to stop the posts being promoted, circulated or widely shared after being flagged by the CDU or its counterpart in the Cabinet Office.
Documents revealed under Freedom of Information (FoI) and data protection requests showed that the activities of prominent critics of the Government’s Covid policies were secretly monitored.
An artificial intelligence firm (AI) was used by the Government to scour social media sites. The company flagged discussions opposing vaccine passports.
Many of the issues being raised were valid at the time and have since been proven to be well-founded.
The BBC also took part in secretive meetings of a government policy forum to address the so-called disinformation.
On Friday, MPs and freedom of speech campaigners condemned the disclosures as “truly chilling” and “a tool for censoring British citizens” akin to those of the Chinese Communist Party.
Much of the Government’s wider work on disinformation is shrouded in secrecy for “national security” reasons. Large parts of official documents are still redacted.
In America, Twitter has released similar information showing how the US government also introduced a secretive programme to curtail discussion of Covid lockdowns.
It can now be revealed that the activities of Prof Carl Heneghan, the Oxford epidemiologist who has advised Boris Johnson, and Dr Alexandre de Figueiredo, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), were monitored by government disinformation units.
Molly Kingsley, who set up a campaign to keep schools open during the pandemic, also had her social activity monitored.
As well as the CDU, the Government operated a Rapid Response Unit (RRU) in the Cabinet Office that hunted online for content it considered disinformation.
The CDU, which is still operating, was embedded in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
The department has “trusted flagger” status at social media companies including Facebook and Twitter, which means that requests for content to be removed are fast-tracked for consideration.
In some cases, individuals whose social media posts were recorded by the units have subsequently faced sanctions by Twitter and Facebook. Ministers denied asking for posts by Prof Heneghan, Dr. de Figueiredo or Ms Kingsley to be removed.
The Government has said that the CDU “is focused on helping the Government understand online disinformation narratives and understand attempts to artificially manipulate the information environment”.
The Government also ran a Counter-Disinformation Policy Forum, which brought together civil servants from the DCMS and technology giants – including Facebook and Google – as well as the BBC to discuss how to limit the spread of what was considered COVID-19 disinformation.
This forum and the two units were not the only way the Government tried to apply pressure on social media companies during the pandemic.
The Lockdown Files, published by The Telegraph earlier this year, revealed that Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, repeatedly lobbied Sir Nick Clegg, the former Deputy Prime Minister and now a Facebook executive, about vaccine misinformation.
Facebook has been open about its efforts to tackle misinformation about Covid. During the pandemic, it removed posts and in April 2020 alone put warning labels on about 50 million pieces of content.
The CDU was established in 2019 and was focused on the European elections before turning to focus on the pandemic.
During Covid, the unit worked closely with the Cabinet Office’s now defunct RRU, whose responsibilities included tackling “purported ‘experts’ issuing dangerous misinformation”.
The RRU has admitted in an FoI obtained by Big Brother Watch and passed to the Telegraph that it made requests for social media posts to be taken down.
As part of its work, the Cabinet Office also passed the CDU “media monitoring” reports.
Documents revealed that the material flagged to the CDU included articles published by the Telegraph.
One of these was a piece by Ms. Kingsley published in February 2022, arguing that it was “indefensible” that children’s lives were still not back to normal when the rest of society was. She urged ministers to make a clear statement that children’s extracurricular activities should not be subject to additional curbs.
One of Ms. Kingsley’s tweets from December 2020, in which she said it would be “unforgivable to close schools”, was also passed to the CDU.
Worth reading in full.
I gave a quote to the Telegraph that wasn’t used. So I might as well include it here.
“The great danger of entrusting the state and state-funded companies to monitor and, in some cases, suppress ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ is that politicians and officials won’t be able to resist the temptation to classify perfectly legitimate criticism of their policies as falling into those categories and then using their ‘trusted flagger’ status with social media companies to get it removed, as happened during the pandemic.
“What started out as an understandable desire to protect the public from foreign, cyber-security threats has morphed into a tool for censoring British citizens.
“It’s in the Conservative Government’s interest to put a stop to this because you can bet your bottom dollar these tools will be used on a far greater scale to suppress dissent by a Labour Government.
“The solution is to build much stronger free speech protections into the Online Safety Bill so social media companies can be taken to court for removing the expression of perfectly legitimate points of view.”
Stop Press: The Telegraph Investigations Team has more on the Counter Disinformation Unit here. Meanwhile, Fraser Nelson has written about how Facebook is a law unto itself when it comes to censoring content it’s decided is ‘false’ or ‘misleading’.