Agencies within the “UK intelligence community” worked closely with the government’s ‘Counter-Disinformation Unit’ (CDU) to police COVID-related dissent on social media, the Telegraph reported on Friday, citing classified documents.
- The documents in question were presented to the British government’s ongoing COVID-19 inquiry, set up earlier this year to examine the government’s response to the pandemic.
Marked “official sensitive,” the documents allege that the “UK intelligence community” was “working closely” with the CDU “where appropriate” during the pandemic, the newspaper stated. The documents do not detail which agencies within the intelligence community – which includes MI6, MI5 and GCHQ – worked with the CDU.
Little is known about the CDU’s inner workings.
Formed in 2019 to combat so-called “disinformation” surrounding European elections, the unit had up to 50 staff members during the pandemic, Susannah Storey, director general for digital, technology and telecoms at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, reportedly told the inquiry.
Storey reportedly said that the CDU answers to a 12-member “disinformation board,” which includes members of the “intelligence community.” According to the Telegraph, the board’s director, Sarah Connolly, previously told Parliament that one of the CDU’s key tasks was “passing information over” to platforms like Facebook and Twitter (now renamed X) to “encourage… the swift takedown of posts.”
According to documents obtained by the Telegraph earlier this summer, the CDU used artificial intelligence to identify and flag comments by critics of the government’s COVID policies.
- These allegedly included Molly Kingsley, whose children’s advocacy group ‘UsForThem’ had campaigned against closing schools during the pandemic; London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine research fellow Alexandre de Figueiredo, who spoke up against mass-vaccinating children against COVID-19; and Carl Heneghan, the director of Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.
The government denied the allegations, insisting that it merely tracked “narratives and trends” rather than the individuals spreading them.
- The activities of the CDU mirror those of multiple government agencies in the US, which liaised with major social media platforms to remove dissenting posts and ban the accounts responsible.
- According to internal documents released by Elon Musk following his purchase of Twitter last year, the platform’s prior management removed posts on behalf of the FBI, CIA, Department of Defense, and a COVID-focused academic group made up of members of the three agencies.