Home: News

Government ‘misinformation’ unit flagged investigative journalism and critics

Exclusive: openDemocracy investigation on Westminster secrecy was monitored by shadowy Cabinet Office unit

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
1 February 2023, 6.00am

A secretive government ‘misinformation’ unit flagged our journalism as ‘harmful’


PhotoEdit / Alamy Stock Photo

Government officials tasked with monitoring ‘disinformation’ and “harmful narratives” flagged an investigation by openDemocracy that exposed Westminster’s culture of secrecy.

In November 2020, we revealed that the government was mishandling Freedom of Information requests.

Eventually, our journalism led to a parliamentary inquiry and forced the government to commit to reforms after a judge criticised the operations of the Cabinet Office and its lack of transparency.

But now it has emerged that openDemocracy’s investigation caught the attention of a little-known government team called the Rapid Response Unit (RRU), which was supposedly focused on tackling “misinformation and disinformation”.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

Set up in 2018, the RRU, which was based across the Cabinet Office and Number 10, was designed to spot “stories of concern” in order to counter “a range of harmful narratives online”.

Although officials claimed it was not a “fake news” unit, the RRU was intended to tackle “false” narratives.

Now, a new report by civil liberties organisation Big Brother Watch has revealed that the RRU conducted “significant levels of surveillance”, including flagging criticism of government policy by politicians and journalists under the guise of tackling misinformation.

The day after openDemocracy published its first investigation into the government’s handling of FOI requests, the RRU circulated an “analysis” document about it. This highlighted journalists and organisations that had tweeted or retweeted the story.

When openDemocracy tried to obtain a copy of the document under the FOI Act, the Cabinet Office rejected our request, claiming its disclosure would “weaken ministers and officials’ ability to discuss controversial and sensitive topics free from premature public scrutiny”.

The concept of ‘wrong information’ has become a blank cheque the government uses to control narratives online

Silkie Carlo, Big Brother Watch

Big Brother Watch has now called for more transparency about the way news stories were flagged by the RRU – which has since been disbanded – after finding that it also flagged criticism of the government’s response to the pandemic.

Documents obtained by the organisation showed that the RRU picked up comments criticising local lockdowns by Labour’s mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and Conservative MP Chris Green.

“Instead of dealing with truth and facts, the RRU spent significant amounts of time monitoring dissenting political views from politicians,” the Big Brother Watch report says.

The report also examines the activities of other government units, such as the Counter Disinformation Unit – which sits inside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – as well as Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), and calls for more transparency around their work. RICU, which was set up to counter extremism, is the oldest of the units examined in the report, and has been previously dubbed as a “shadowy propaganda unit”.

There must now be the fullest possible transparency and oversight by Parliament, as well as scrutiny by the courts

Media lawyer Gavin Millar

Speaking to openDemocracy, the director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, 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.

“Contrary to their stated aims, these government truth units are secretive and harmful to our democracy.”

Media lawyer Gavin Millar KC branded Big Brother Watch’s findings “very worrying”, adding: “It is particularly concerning that political speech unwelcome to the government is being targeted, without any apparent safeguards to ensure compliance with the law.”

“There are no obvious security or intelligence issues about most of these activities. So there must now be the fullest possible transparency and oversight by Parliament, as well as scrutiny by the courts.”

A government spokesperson 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.”

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData