Wall of secrecy surrounds DCMS's Counter-Disinformation Unit

Department remains tight-lipped on its fake-news-battling operations, in the face of intervention from the Information Commissioner's Office
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By Sam Trendall

22 Feb 2022

Despite the sustained efforts of parliamentarians and journalists, the government continues to withhold basic details of its Counter-Disinformation Unit.

The secrecy around its 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”, CSW's sister title PublicTechnology has revealed.

The CDU was “stood up” in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in March 2020 – with a particular remit to respond to false information about coronavirus circulating online. According to the government, the unit had previously been activated to monitor online activity related to the European Parliament election and the UK general election that both took place in 2019.

The unit, which brought together resources from the Home Office, Foreign Office, Cabinet Office and the intelligence services, is since understood to have remained in operation and has been responsible for leading government’ response to disinformation – which is defined as the deliberate and malicious dissemination of false or misleading information with the intention to deceive people for political or financial reasons.

The CDU’s remit also includes responding to misinformation, which is considered to be the inadvertent sharing of falsehoods, largely by members of the general public.

Since its creation, very little detail has been made available about the CDU or its work. 

There is no public information on the number of staff or funding for the unit, the volume of disinformation being tackled, where this information has been published, any examples of the false narratives being encountered, and very little detail on the subject of misinformation or the steps being taken to remove or counter it.

There is no public information on the number of staff or funding for the unit, the volume of disinformation being tackled or the false narratives being encountered, and very little detail on the subject of misinformation or the steps being taken to counter it

In the last two years, ministers have responded to 69 written parliamentary questions – from MPs on all sides of the house – enquiring about the work of the CDU.

Three recent examples came from Manchester Central MP Lucy Powell, who asked about the number of pieces of false information that have been “directly rebutted on social media”, the number that have been flagged to each of Twitter, Google, Facebook, and YouTube, and how many staff work at the CDU.

The response from minister for tech and the digital economy Chris Philp indicated that the anti-disinformation function is “still fully operational”.

“The CDU is resourced full time and works in close partnership with cross-government teams,” he said.

“In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the size of the team in DCMS has increased. Requirements are continually reviewed to ensure appropriate levels of resourcing, including surge capacity as needed.”

The minister added: “When false narratives are identified, the CDU coordinates departments across Whitehall to deploy the appropriate response.

"This can include a direct rebuttal on social media, flagging content to platforms and ensuring public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.”

No detail was provided on the volume of information, where it is being published, or how many staff work at the CDU – reinforcing the minister’s previous comments that “as an operational matter, it is not appropriate for the government to give a running commentary on the amount of disinformation identified”.

“Release of information would undermine the CDU’s effectiveness by providing insight into the scope and scale of CDU capabilities which could allow malign disinformation actors to tailor their tactics to evade our monitoring capabilities” – DCMS

Philp’s parliamentary responses came as PublicTechnology neared the end of its own six-month quest to find answers to similar questions, or at least a more detailed explanation of why even limited and basic detail has continually been withheld – by an entity whose remit is to point out and combat false and inaccurate information, and promote public bodies as a trusted and reliable source.

Request pending

A Freedom of Information request made to DCMS on 26 July asked whether the CDU was still operational and if its work was subject to any ongoing periodic review process.

The department’s response indicated that the unit “remains operational and there are no plans for it to be stood down”.

PublicTechnology also asked how many full-time equivalent staff worked at the unit and how many pieces of disinformation it has identified since March 2020. We further requested outline details – subject and platform – of the three most recent instances of information that had been flagged or removed.

Answers to all these questions were ultimately not provided, citing FOI exemptions in cases where “disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.

The department’s response indicated that “in order to apply the [cited] exemption… the department is obliged to receive the ‘reasonable opinion’ of a ‘qualified person’ – in this case a minister of the crown”.

Having sought the opinion of this – unnamed – minister, DCMS laid out, as per its legal duties, the arguments for and against the public interest in releasing the information.

“After careful consideration, we do not feel the public interest is greater than the interest in withholding this information,” it said. 

“After careful consideration, we do not feel the public interest is greater than the interest in withholding this information” – DCMS

The refusal to provide any detail on the number of staff, the volume of disinformation identified, or even a vague description of the kinds of false narratives being tackled was attributed to the need to maintain good relations with platforms where such material is published. The department also claimed that public detail on the size of CDU’s operations would allow those promoting disinformation to adapt their methods and strategy of doing so.

“In favour of withholding the information we considered that there is a strong public interest in preserving a 'safe space' around ministers and government officials so that they can communicate with confidence, including with external third parties,” the response said.“ In particular, we consider release of the information would have a negative impact on our relationship with social media platforms. It could risk effective information sharing and data critical to our work. In addition, we consider the release of information would undermine the CDU’s effectiveness by providing insight into the scope and scale of CDU capabilities which could allow malign disinformation actors to tailor their tactics to evade our monitoring capabilities.”

The department did, however, recognise that there are arguments “in favour of releasing the information”.

“We recognise there is a general public interest in government transparency,” it said. “We recognise that greater transparency makes the government more accountable to the electorate and increases trust. We also recognise the current heightened public interest in the issue of disinformation.”

Waiting game

DCMS initially responded to PublicTechnology’s request in August 2021, indicating that – while it believed it was exempted from releasing the requested information – it needed more time to conduct the necessary tests as to whether “the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information”.

Having indicated that it aimed to respond by 22 September with details of the public-interest test, no further communication from the department was received until 21 January.

In the meantime, the Information Commissioner’s Office – following a complaint made by PublicTechnology – had also contacted DCMS multiple times in relation to the request.

This included the official notice, sent on 29 November, that the complaint had been upheld and that DCMS must either disclose the information or issue a response that adequately explained the refusal to do so.

“DCMS must take this step within 35 calendar days of the date of this decision notice,” the ICO notice said. “Failure to comply may result in the commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court… and may be dealt with as a contempt of court.”

Those 35 days came and went with no response. But a further reminder from the ICO in January did, finally, prompt DCMS to explain its refusal to disclose information.

PublicTechnology plans to appeal the refusal – and make the counter-argument.

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared

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