Government’s main anti-disinformation team does not monitor the activities of individual citizens, a minister has said.
It was recently reported that, earlier in the pandemic, government teams had monitored and, in some cases, flagged for deletion UK citizens’ activity on social media – including some that contained no factual inaccuracies, but were simply critical of government policy. This included posts from serving Labour and Conservative MPs, as well as academics and journalists, according to an exposé from Big Brother Watch and the Daily Mail.
Among those conducing analysis was the Counter Disinformation Unit, established in what was then the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport at the start of the coronavirus crisis to bring together resources from across government.
Paul Scully, a junior minister at the newly created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, claimed that the unit does not keep tabs on the online activity of individual citizens.
“The Counter Disinformation Unit monitors narratives, trends and attempts to artificially manipulate the information environment online,” he said.
“It does not monitor individuals, however the content reviewed may incidentally include personal data, such as names and social media handles embedded within content published on publicly available sites.”
This data processing is lawful under the terms of the UK GDPR, the minister said, as it is “necessary for us in our work as a public body and in the public interest”.
The CDU is just one of several units dedicated to tackling disinformation and misinformation that is reported to have studied the social posts criticising the government’s response to Covid-19. A specialist information-operations unit of the Army, the 77th Brigade, was also drafted in, according to reports.
Since the revelations, government has faced a great deal of scrutiny and criticism, including numerous parliamentary questions.
In response to the latest series of enquiries, from Labour MP for Streatham Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Scully said that “freedom of expression and the media are essential qualities of any functioning democracy; people must be allowed to discuss and debate issues freely”.
The minister added: “The CDU’s role is not to spot every instance of disinformation but where harmful content is identified in the course of the CDU’s work which may breach a platform terms of service, this may be referred to the relevant platform who will consider whether or not to take any action.
"The CDU’s work is consistent with the government’s principles and values on protecting freedom of expression and promoting a free, open, and secure internet and as such no action is taken on any content originating from journalists or politicians.”
Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared