Cyber Security Week: Is government’s anti-disinformation unit protecting or persecuting citizens?

Government claims the Counter Disinformation Unit – accused of effectively spying on its own citizens – has played a key role in tackling Kremlin narratives, and will be important in election preparations

“The CDU uses publicly available data, including material shared on social media platforms, to develop an understanding of disinformation narratives and trends. It does not, and has never, monitored individuals and all data is anonymised wherever possible.”

This is how the government summarises the work and methods of its Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU). The unit is based in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and, in its current form, was “stood up” in the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis in spring 2020, with a remit to tackle false information about the pandemic circulating online.

Others have a different, and darker take on how the CDU goes about its business. Some of the fiercest recent criticism of the unit has come from close to the heart of government itself.

“To the best of our knowledge, the CDU undertakes its work in the absence of effective transparency, oversight, accountability mechanisms or due process,” said a letter sent last month to DSIT secretary Michelle Donelan by David Davis – the MP who formerly served as Brexit secretary and Conservative party chair.

As reported by the Telegraph, the missive, co-signed by Labour MP Bell-Ribeiro Addy and the Green party’s Caroline Lucas, added: “We call on you to suspend the CDU immediately and commission an independent review of its work, in order to ensure that the rights to freedom of expression and privacy are sufficiently protected.”

According to a report published earlier this year by the Daily Mail and campaign group Big Brother Watch, the MPs are just three among many citizens whose online posts have been flagged by government and military disinformation units – despite the posts, in some cases, containing no factual inaccuracies, but merely being critical of government policy.

The MPs’ concerns about the CDU’s lack of transparency, at least, seem difficult to refute. Government has repeatedly failed to provide basic operational information, including details such as staff numbers or funding, in response to scores of parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests – including those from PublicTechnology.

After a lengthy process of appeals, the then Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport told us last year that the secrecy around the unit’s work is maintained on the grounds of a need to protect government’s “relationship with social media platforms”, as well as a desire to “preserve a ‘safe space’ around ministers and government officials”.

It has since been reported that about 50 people work at the CDU – although DSIT will not confirm this figure.

As the scrutiny and criticism focused on the unit has grown – along with the public profile of its critics – government has, in the last few months, issued a handful of policy documents and a ‘fact sheet’, from which the quote at the top of this article is taken. These public pronouncements have sought to provide some reassurance about “how it operates and what it does and does not do”.

“The fact that the counter-disinformation units operate so secretly is a great problem in a democracy and means that they are evading the scrutiny that any such powers, particularly where the rights to privacy and free expression are concerned, rightly require.”

Silkie Carlo, Big Brother Watch

The fact sheet first clarifies the difference between disinformation, which is spread deliberately and maliciously, often by states or other highly organised actors, and misinformation, which concerns falsehoods shared inadvertently, typically by individual citizens.

The CDU explainer adds: “Its purpose is to understand disinformation narratives and attempts to artificially manipulate the information environment to ensure that the government understands the scope and reach of harmful mis and disinformation and can take appropriate action. Such action can include posting a response on social media rebutting the claim, awareness raising campaigns to promote the facts, and working with social media companies to encourage them to promote authoritative sources of information and consistently enforce their terms of service.”

In response to the criticisms of alleged and effective spying on individuals, the government claims that “since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, over 95% of referrals made by the CDU related to state-backed disinformation”.

PublicTechnology understands that, having been created to largely target Covid-related falsehoods – which, in addition to organised disinformation, was also characterised by large-scale sharing of misinformation by individuals – the unit has since been refocused on state-backed campaigns.

With a general election likely to be announced within the next year, it is understood that the government hopes the CDU will play an important role in supporting preparations by providing analysis of disinformation-based “narratives” that represent the biggest risks to the democratic process. In doing so, the unit will work hand in hand with the Defending Democracy Taskforce, a cross-government initiative announced late last year.

“The taskforce will work across government and with parliament, the UK intelligence community, the devolved administrations, local authorities and the private sector on the full range of threats facing our democratic institutions,” the government said when launching the unit.

PublicTechnology asked DSIT about the recent criticism of the CDU by MPs from across the House of Commons, and whether government was working with parliamentarians to explore and address their concerns.

A government spokesperson said: “Using publicly available information, the Counter Disinformation Unit tackles the most severe safety, security and disinformation threats, such as Russia’s denial of massacres in Ukraine, ensuring the government understands the scope and reach of harmful disinformation and is able to take appropriate action. We continue to engage with parliamentarians on matters relating to the unit and its work.”

‘All the major players’
The focus on disinformation, and government’s efforts to combat it, comes after a decade in which the issue has grown in its severity and scale, with social media platforms – and the internet more widely – giving people and organisations a means of disseminating information rapidly, and with hitherto unprecedented reach. This includes governments and other organs of the state.

“Disinformation is being used by almost all the major players on a global scale,” says Shakuntala Banaji, professor of media, culture and social change at the London School of Economics.

She tells PublicTechnology that some governments now fund a de facto “Office of Hate, or Office of Disinformation”.

“We can see this field populated by good-faith actors and bad-faith actors – who are constantly accusing people of putting out disinformation, when they are doing that themselves,” she adds.

The work of the UK government – and others – also takes place in a context where the lines between disinformation, propaganda and the promotion of formal policy positions can be blurred and somewhat subjective.

March 2020
Date when the CDU, in its current form, was “stood up”, largely to tackle Covid disinformation

Proportion of “referrals made by the CDU related to state-backed disinformation”, according to government

Approximate headcount of CDU, according to the Telegraph

242 days
Amount of time Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy has been waiting for answer from PM Rishi Sunak regarding funding for government anti-disinformation units

“I happen to think that government is purveying disinformation about the risks of long Covid, for example,” Banaji says.

She adds: “I am very aware that government is not a monolith – there are people who are really well informed and very well intentioned. There are civil servants that have been trying to tackle this for years by thinking about what frameworks and responses should look like.”

And there are some measures that have been proven to have a positive effect, according to the LSE professor, such as traffic-light rating-based “early warning systems”, which can flag possible disinformation and misinformation and have “had success when implemented by big tech companies with the support of government and with tech and policy teams” working together.

But, often, efforts to tackle the issue have focused on comparatively “lower-level people taking part in conspiracy theories”, rather than seeking to catch bigger – and potentially more dangerous – fish.

“It is much less easy to take on a minister,” Banaji says.

Combatting the problem meaningfully and effectively may be less easy still.

“That has got to start with much wider social agreement; we need a new social contract,” she adds. “[And we need] a political commitment to not using disinformation as a political tactic.”

Of course, conspiracists and propagandists are not merely a 21st-centuty phenomenon and PublicTechnology wonders whether, even with the reach and power of the online world, disinformation is simply a new name for an age-old problem.

“I think we have to do this in the context of 100 years of world history,” Banaji says. “Is disinformation worse than it was in 1929 or 1939? No, it’s not. Is it different? The thing that really frightens me is that it is so little different – given all we know… and all of the things that should have been lessons we learnt a long time ago.”

‘Suspend and investigate’
There remain many opponents of government’s approach to disinformation in 2023. Not least Big Brother Watch, which has been a vocal and vehement critic of the CDU.

The organisation’s director Silkie Carlo tells PublicTechnology that a lack of political will is not the only barrier to stopping what many see as the unit’s overreach, with both parliamentarians and officials driving the direction of the CDU.

“There appears to be a strong civil service steer in the performance of the CDU rather than a ministerial one, which is one of many reasons we strongly believe Michelle Donelan should suspend and investigate the activities of the unit,” she says.

“Using publicly available information, the Counter Disinformation Unit tackles the most severe safety, security and disinformation threats… We continue to engage with parliamentarians on matters relating to the unit and its work.”

Government spokesperson

The privacy group’s ultimate contention is that “the fact that the counter-disinformation units operate so secretly is a great problem in a democracy and means that they are evading the scrutiny that any such powers, particularly where the rights to privacy and free expression are concerned, rightly require”.

Carlo says: “The Information Commissioner’s Office has had to issue DSIT and the Cabinet Office decision notices requiring that they respond to our FOIs, which are simple requests for copies of their policy documents. In a highly unusual move, even the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament has stated that the CDU requires scrutiny, which suggests that they are conducting spook-style activities. What we do know about the work conducted by these units is highly concerning.”

She adds: “Lawful speech critical of the government by world-leading academics, journalists, MPs, campaigners and members of the public has been monitored and logged by these units and their AI contractors – despite clearly being dissent, not disinformation. We know that around two thirds of the flags the CDU sent to Twitter during the pandemic were rejected, meaning they did not even breach their very broad terms of service at the time, let alone the law. That raises our concerns that the government could be effectively attempting to conduct extrajudicial censorship.”

Big Brother Watch’s damning Ministry of Truth report published earlier this year – which Carlo says found that “the former defence secretary admitted that the [Army’s] 77th Brigade does use its information warfare powers in relation to lawful, domestic speech” – and the subsequent campaigning by MPs, has not prompted any greater engagement with critics on the part of government.

But its campaign will go on: “We won’t give up until the CDU is suspended or stops threatening the lawful speech of the public.”

Sam Trendall

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