A shadowy Army unit secretly spied on British citizens who criticised the Government’s Covid lockdown policies.
An investigation by the civil liberties campaign group said a whistleblower had claimed that troops were used to “spy” on the British public.
Military operatives in the UK’s ‘information warfare’ belonging to the 77 brigade were part of a sinister operation that targeted politicians including Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, Conservative MPs David Davis and Chris Green along with high-profile journalists who had raised doubts about the official pandemic response.
They compiled dossiers on public figures such as ex-Minister David Davis, who questioned the modelling behind alarming death toll predictions, as well as journalists such as Peter Hitchens. Their dissenting views were then reported back to No 10.
Documents obtained by the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch exposed the work of Government cells such as the Counter Disinformation Unit, based in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Rapid Response Unit in the Cabinet Office.
Big Brother Watch claimed that soldiers from the Army’s 77th Brigade collated tweets from British citizens about Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic and passed them to the Cabinet Office as part of wider cross-Government efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation about Covid-19.
The MoD’s 77th Brigade deploys ‘non-lethal engagement and legitimate non-military levers as a means to adapt behaviours of adversaries’.
According to a whistleblower who worked for the brigade during the lockdowns, the unit strayed far beyond its remit of targeting foreign powers.
They said that British citizens’ social media accounts were scrutinised – a sinister activity that the Ministry of Defence, in public, repeatedly denied doing.
Papers show the outfits were tasked with countering ‘disinformation’ and ‘harmful narratives… from purported experts’, with civil servants and artificial intelligence deployed to ‘scrape’ social media for keywords such as ‘ventilators’ that would have been of interest.
The information was then used to orchestrate Government responses to criticisms of policies such as the stay-at-home order, when police were given the power to issue fines and break up gatherings.
It also allowed Ministers to push social media platforms to remove posts and promote Government-approved lines.
In an exclusive interview with Big Brother Watch, a whistleblower from the unit stated that the 77th Brigade was “monitoring the UK population” to gauge the public response to the Johnson government’s policies, which often included reports on British people sharing their fears around COVID-19.
Publicly, the Ministry of Defence has always claimed that “77th Brigade do not, and have never, conducted any kind of action against British citizens”.
Tory former cabinet minister David Davis, who, according to Big Brother Watch, was monitored as part of a cross-Government group, called for the issue to be reviewed, at which Ben Wallace Secretary of State for Defence issued an assurance that he had already instructed for it to be looked into.
The Defence Secretary, @BWallaceMP , is right that the MoD needs more spending, but we also need to fix what is going wrong.— David Davis (@DavidDavisMP) January 30, 2023
Every year for the last 25 years, the NAO and the PAC have criticised the MoD on many issues.
We must fix these if we are to remain a Tier One power. pic.twitter.com/BqntDjhGqW
He told the Commons: “Colleagues may have read reports this weekend about activity conducted by the Army’s counter-disinformation unit in 77th Brigade.
“Online disinformation from foreign state actors is a serious threat to the United Kingdom, which is why during the pandemic we brought together expertise from … across Government to monitor disinformation about Covid.
Davis said in the Commons: “I know him well enough that when he tells us that he gave clear instructions and guidelines to the Brigade to only operate foreign powers and extremists, he was telling the exact truth.
“Will he however review the issue and ensure that his guidelines have been followed in all cases?”
Wallace said: “Yes, I have, and I have already instructed that we look into not only the story, but indeed my instructions that I personally issued after a visit were carried out.”
The whistleblower from 77 Brigade, which uses both regular and reserve troops, said: ‘I developed the impression the Government were more interested in protecting the success of their policies than uncovering any potential foreign interference, and I regret that I was a part of it. Frankly, the work I was doing should never have happened.’
The source also suggested that the Government was so focused on monitoring critics it may have missed genuine Chinese-led prolockdown campaigns.
Silkie Carlo, of Big Brother Watch, said: ‘This is an alarming case of mission creep, where public money and military power have been misused to monitor academics, journalists, campaigners and MPs who criticised the Government, particularly during the pandemic.
‘The fact that this political monitoring happened under the guise of ‘countering misinformation’ highlights how, without serious safeguards, the concept of ‘wrong information’ is open to abuse and has become a blank cheque the Government uses in an attempt to control narratives online.
‘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.’
A Downing Street source last night said the units had scaled back their work significantly since the end of the lockdowns.
Big Brother is watching you.George Orwell 1984
Watch the 77th Brigade whistleblower’s testimony:
What is the 77th Brigade?
The 77th Brigade is part of the British Army and exists to conduct information operations within the military, with its work spanning from audience analysis to disseminating counter-propaganda. The Brigade has conducted operations against both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Its members include Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the Defence Select Committee and former army captain, who is a reservist.
“77th Brigade is a hybrid unit of regular and reserve personnel that was established in 2015. It delivers information activities as part of broader military effects against hostile state actors and violent extremist organisations based outside the UK.
“It uses publicly available data, including material shared on social media platforms, to assess UK disinformation trends. It is not to be involved in regulating, policing or even reporting opinion that it may or may not agree with.”
COUNTER DISINFORMATION UNIT
What is the CDU?
The Counter Disinformation Unit was established in its current form in March 2020 to“crack down” on “false coronavirus information online” and its role centres on fighting what the government calls disinformation. Government ministers have admitted that they’ve personally intervened in the CDU’s work to pursue the censorship of speech that they deem “inappropriate”.
Although the pandemic triggered the most recent establishment of the CDU, its work has since expanded dramatically to cover what the Department of Digital, Culture Media and Sport calls “periods of acute disinformation risk”.
General Sir Nick Carter, the UK chief of defence staff, announced that the Brigade was working to counter COVID-19 related misinformation online. It was subsequently revealed in November 2020 by The Times newspaper that the 77th Brigade [77x] was supporting the Cabinet Office’s Rapid Response Unit’s counter-disinformation work around vaccinations
- however, it is understood that this ended by late 2021.
In addition to working on COVID-19, the CDU has worked on the May 2021 United Kingdom Local Elections, COP-26, the NI Assembly Elections, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
During the pandemic, the unit’s remit was widened to also cover the “inadvertent sharing of false information” as well as the deliberate misinformation and disinformation covered in its previous iterations.
Members of Parliament have also tried to find out how much public money and how many civil servants are working at the Unit. At least 13 written parliamentary questions have been put to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) about the CDU’s resourcing since March 2020. Ministers have consistently refused to tell MPs about the budget or staffing levels of the unit, claiming that even these basic details would allow “malign actors” to gain insight into the CDU’s capabilities.
The most transparency achieved on how public money is being spent came in a May 2020 answer where a DCMS Minister claimed that the team’s size had tripled – but no further detail was given.
After 77x’s involvement was revealed, the Ministry of Defence explained that soldiers were not deployed against UK citizens: “Defence are supporting the Cabinet Office to tackle disinformation and hostile state narratives which seek to undermine the UK’s reputation. All work is internationally focused, and the military does not and has never conducted any kind of action against British citizens.
Of course, the big question is who will they be spying on next…