Army’s ‘information warfare’ unit monitored Covid lockdown critics
The Army’s “information warfare” unit monitored Covid lockdown critics during the pandemic, the Government has revealed.
The 77th Brigade, a specialist unit set up to counter disinformation and other online activity deemed harmful to the UK, assisted other government units in the task.
Publicly available social media posts were scrutinised for accuracy and challenged if the Government felt information presented to the public was incorrect, inaccurate or deliberately misleading.
The Government made the admission in response to an article in the Mail on Sunday, based on reports from an anonymous Army whistleblower and documents obtained by the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch.
The Army whistleblower told the Mail on Sunday: “It is quite obvious that our activities resulted in the monitoring of the UK population ... monitoring the social media posts of ordinary, scared people”.
A government spokesman said: “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.”
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) is in charge of the Government’s counter-disinformation strategy.
During the pandemic however, the Government’s response to harmful online messaging was largely conducted through three separate units brought together for the duration of the national emergency.
The Counter Disinformation Unit, a part of DCMS, searched for content deemed harmful to the UK which was then flagged to social media platforms.
The Cabinet Office’s Rapid Response Unit, launched in March 2020, was designed to identify and counter social media posts and other commentary from purported experts issuing dangerous misinformation, as well as phishing scams run by criminal fraudsters.
When false narratives were identified, the Government issued direct rebuttals on social media to ensure public health campaigns were only promoted through reliable sources.
The unit, which has since been disbanded, played a central role in tackling misinformation online during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Specialists from the Army’s 77th Brigade, assisted the other government departments during the pandemic.
‘Harmful to our democracy’
The 77th Brigade, established in 2015 and consisting of regular and reserve personnel, mostly focuses on hostile state actors and violent extremist organisations outside the UK.
It provides military commanders with information strategies, mainly through social media posts and other online messaging, as part of a wider plan.
However, during the pandemic, the Government used some of the military experts to help counter disinformation.
Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties advocacy group, told the Mail on Sunday: “Contrary to their stated aims, these Government truth units are secretive and harmful to our democracy.
The Counter Disinformation Unit should be suspended immediately and subject to a full investigation.”