Secretive Whitehall units have been monitoring government critics’ speech online – including Members of Parliament, academics, journalists, human rights campaigners and the public – under the guise of combatting “misinformation.”
In their report released yesterday titled ‘Ministry of Truth: the secretive government units spying on your speech’, Big Brother Watch reveals the truth behind the UK government’s five anti-fake news units and how their mission of “countering disinformation” has quickly turned into countering dissent across the UK.
The report also exposes the Government’s use of the British Army to scan their own citizens’ speech online, with exclusive testimony from a whistle-blower who worked in the “secretive information warfare machine”, the 77th Brigade. One of the key findings of the report states:
“Soldiers from the Army’s 77th Brigade, tasked with ‘non-lethal psychological warfare’, collected tweets from British citizens posting about Covid-19 and passed them to central government – despite claiming operations were directed strictly overseas.”
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Last summer, we worked with Big Brother Watch to determine the extent of the government’s spying activities. As a result, Carl sent Freedom of Information requests to The Rapid Response Unit and the Counter Disinformation Unit (see the report for context).
The Rapid Response Unit (“RRU”) is part of the Cabinet Office and was tasked with “tackling a range of harmful narratives online” during the pandemic, “from purported ‘experts’ issuing dangerous misinformation to criminal fraudsters running phishing scams.”
The Counter Disinformation Unit (“CDU”) was tasked to monitor what it deems to be disinformation and flag content to social media companies, sitting inside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
We’ve previously written about ‘Censorships and their Antidotes’ in Covid Times, pointing out that “academic and Journalistic freedom requires individuals to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead without undue or unreasonable interference.”
In our article ‘Dissenters’, we learnt from Isobel Oakeshott that attacks were partly orchestrated by Hancock, who harnessed the full power of the state to silence “dissenters.”
This latest Big Brother Watch report, and the information obtained in Freedom Of Information requests, show the government was spying on many individuals, including us.
All along, the government was taking covert action to shout down what it considered was misinformation and disinformation: the government thought it owned the truth. It didn’t like criticism of modelling, and lockdown policies, particularly pointing out the collateral harms, any opposition to covid passes, vaccine passports and evidence underpinning the vaccines.
So far, we have faced multiple complaints to our university, been censored on Facebook and Twitter, and had government ministers set up websites to discredit us. Furthermore, we faced academic attacks more akin to witch hunts, attempts by The Guardian to paint us as agents of disinformation, and the BBC largely ghosting us from 2021 onwards. Indeed, a Conservative MP who tried to humiliate us through his website was dubbed “witchfinder-general” by The Times. On the way, we lost several friends silenced by the stress of the attacks, the intimidation and the online cheerleaders who sought to close down the dissenters.
Apparently, the government also used an Army Intelligence Unit called 77 Brigade, almost certainly a cover name for spooks who did some of the spying. If this is real and they are or were serving in HM Forces, they need reminding that obeying an unlawful order is no defence.
All for seeking evidence-based answers to policies enacted on a few people’s opinions, models or very poor-quality evidence.
But now we find some of the attacks, the censorship and the smears might have been orchestrated at the heart of the government through its active surveillance. With this latest revelation, the concerted nature of the attacks makes sense.
While speaking out, we have the right to keep working and hold on to academic posts that we have held for a long time and are qualified to hold. Specifically on respiratory viruses epidemiology and interventions to ameliorate their effects, a field in which we have scores of publications and 50 years of combined work experience.
We have the right not to be harassed, trolled or defamed for advocating viral challenge studies on humans, which, with due ethical safeguards, has been going on since Edward Jenner’s time. The right to investigate how a virus transmits and how interventions might prevent its transmission – to challenge the dogma. Finally, the right to lead productive lives devoid of intimidation to ourselves and our family and colleagues.
Somehow in all this, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights was forgotten, which protects the right to freedom of speech. As was Academic Freedom: the legal right “to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have.”
One of the key elements of an evidence-based approach is you’ll obtain the truth in the end. Many of the supported policy interventions, with the benefit of hindsight, now seem absurd. However, how many have been harmed in the battle to obtain the truth?
The government’s experts and advisors claimed certainty when it didn’t exist; creating policies overnight, it retrospectively used poor-quality evidence to justify the actions; it over-relied on modellers, opinions and poor science – in doing so, it had to defend itself with covert surveillance operations.
Most, if not all, of the main players setting the pandemic policies have moved on – some to better, more lucrative things. Yet, academics and journalists should be empowered to investigate and report on government activities in the public interest. We are aware that many academics wanted to speak out but were scared off by the intimidation and the threats: the silencing of science is not in the best interests of a functioning democratic society.
The government lost its way, as did many. In the frenzied fear of the pandemic, they forgot to follow the evidence. Society is all the better for those who seek to challenge the status quo and speak out. – we salute those that did.
About the Author
Trust the Evidence is a Substack for the writings of Tom Jefferson and Carl Heneghan. Carl Heneghan is a professor of Evidence-based Medicine at the University of Oxford, Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (“CEBM”) and NHS Urgent Care general practitioner (“GP”) who regularly appears in the media. Tom Jefferson is a clinical epidemiologist and a Senior Associate Tutor at the University of Oxford.
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