UK Government Admits to Monitoring COVID Lockdown Critics on Social Media Platforms

UK Government Admits to Monitoring COVID Lockdown Critics on Social Media Platforms
A person using a computer in an undated file photo. (Dominic Lipinski/PA Media)
Owen Evans

In light of a new report, the UK government admitted that it monitored lockdown critics on social media platforms via its disinformation units during COVID but denied that it targeted individuals.

Westminster made the admission after documents were obtained by the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, which revealed that Conservative MPs and journalists had warranted attention from the government’s Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU).
For its “Ministry of Truth” report (pdf), Big Brother Watch submitted numerous freedom of information requests and cooperated with people in public life who submitted requests to demand copies of their data held by government disinformation units.

During COVID, the government used different units including the Rapid Response Unit (RRU), the Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU), Government Information Cell (GIC). Each had roles in “tackling harmful narratives online,” monitoring and flagging ”disinformation” content to social media companies, and pushing official lines.

The report found that the monitoring and reporting of critics was done under the government’s Counter Disinformation Unit in the Culture Department (DCMS).
The report also claimed that the British Army’s information warfare machine, the 77th, which has conducted operations against both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, collating tweets from British citizens about COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, passing them to the Cabinet Office, though it is understood that this ended by late 2021.
Big Brother Watch received testimony from an alleged 77th Brigade army whistleblower, though The Epoch Times has not been able to verify these claims or his identity.

Monitor Disinformation

A government spokesman told The Epoch Times that “online disinformation is a serious threat to the UK, which is why during the pandemic we brought together expertise from across government to monitor disinformation about COVID.

“These units used publicly available data, including material shared on social media platforms, to assess UK disinformation trends and narratives.

“They did not target individuals or take any action that could impact anyone’s ability to discuss and debate issues freely,” he added.

Filmmaker and author of the book, “A State of Fear” Laura Dodsworth 2022, (Courtesy of Laura Dodsworth)
Filmmaker and author of the book, “A State of Fear” Laura Dodsworth 2022, (Courtesy of Laura Dodsworth)

In the report, figures who warranted attention from the CDU included Conservative MP David Davis, Lockdown Sceptics founder Toby Young, talkRADIO’s Julia Hartley-Brewer, and Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens.

The report noted that author Laura Dodsworth found herself in a “Cross Whitehall Weekly Counter Disinformation Report” from June 2021 mentioning the launch of her book “A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponized Fear During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Dodsworth had investigated the UK government’s “nudge” unit, which she said purposefully deployed fear to make the public comply with things such as extended lockdowns and vaccinations.

Despite the launch being picked by the Daily Telegraph, the Times, and the Daily Mail, it was the coverage by Kremlin-linked news outlet Russia Today that was picked up by the CDU, pointing to her description of government advisers as “unelected psychocrats.”

‘Treated Us All as Biohazards, and Thus as Eligible for Surveillance’

Dodsworth told The Epoch Times by email that she believed that the report “vindicated some of the anonymous sources and findings published in her book.”

“Something is rotten in a state when the surveillance apparatus is turned upon the innocent civilian,” she said.

“In a free and democratic country, propaganda and surveillance might be turned on enemy states and terrorists, but not on the population. The justification might be the ‘war footing’ the government placed us on for a virus,” she said.

Dodsworth said that the “inevitable consequence of seeing the enemy not as a distant country with a red button at a despot’s fingertips or a terrorist with a suicide vest, but as any citizen playing host to a virus, is to treat that citizen as the enemy.

“The government treated us all as biohazards, and thus as eligible for surveillance and censorship,” she added.

Dodsworth said that the “units should be disbanded and investigated immediately” and “that they are not under sufficient oversight.”

Conservative MP and former Secretary of State David Davis is pictured in London on Feb. 6, 2019. (Tolga Akmem/AFP via Getty Images)
Conservative MP and former Secretary of State David Davis is pictured in London on Feb. 6, 2019. (Tolga Akmem/AFP via Getty Images)

Serious Rethink

In a statement, Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said that the “government truth units are secretive and harmful to our democracy,” and demanded they be suspended immediately and subject to a full investigation.

“This is an alarming case of mission creep, where public money and even military power have been misused to monitor academics, journalists, campaigners and members of parliament who criticised the government, particularly during the pandemic,” she said.

“The fact that this political monitoring happened under the guise of ‘countering misinformation’ highlights how, absent serious safeguards, the concept of ‘wrong information’ is open to abuse and has become a blank cheque the government uses in attempt to control narratives online,” she added.

Adding to the statement, Conservative David Davis MP said that “Big Brother Watch’s findings ”should set alarm bells ringing for anyone who knows the dangers of the overmighty state.”

“Journalists, politicians and members of the public should all be free to air their views without examination by Government agencies,” he said.

“Privacy and free speech are fundamentally important values. But in the war on ‘misinformation,’ they are being put at risk. It is time for a serious rethink at the heart of Government,” added Davis.

Owen Evans is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in civil liberties and free speech.
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