‘Snooping’ Claim After Anti-Monarchy Opinions Included in Government Disinformation Reports

The ‘sinister’ disinformation unit has been criticised for overstepping its brief.

by Simon Childs

13 May 2024

Peter Tatchell attending a republican protest at the state opening of parliament 2023. Tejas Sandhu / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect
Peter Tatchell attending a republican protest at the state opening of parliament 2023. Tejas Sandhu / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

On 2 June 2022, newspaper editors delighted at the chance to fill pages and pages fawning at the royal pomp, as Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Platinum Jubilee with a special Trooping of the Colour military parade.

Telegraph columnist Alison Pearson, for instance, was overcome with patriotic fervour at seeing Union flags along the Mall, glorying in “the swelling sense that it was OK to feel proud to be British (they can’t arrest you for it; not yet anyway).”

Not everyone was so delighted, however. Peter Tatchell, the veteran human rights campaigner and republican, used the day to voice his criticisms of the monarchy. In a post on X/Twitter promoting a video interview he had conducted, he said: “I discuss … what’s wrong with royals: elitism, deference and vast unearned wealth.”

In the linked YouTube video, Tatchell criticised the Queen for her lack of patronage of LGBTQ+ charities. He also said that the hereditary nature of the monarchy is “racist by default”, as no Black or Asian person could become head of state for the foreseeable future.

Tatchell’s opinions will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his decades of human rights work with the Peter Tatchell Foundation. While plenty of people will disagree with his views, they are not controversial.

Despite this, the post ended up in a report about “disinformation” compiled by a tech start up for a little known, shadowy unit within the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), in what Tatchell sees as an example of “government snooping”.

Drinking bleach.

The Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU) was set up by the government in 2019 to monitor and combat disinformation around the European and general elections. It continued its role during the coronavirus pandemic, and since then it has worked on the COP26 climate conference and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as disinformation is spreading faster than ever thanks to social media. The unit is in regular contact with social media giants, and has a “trusted flagger” status for recommending the removal of posts.

A government fact sheet on the CDU says the unit has countered “disinformation threats that have suggested bleach is an effective way to cure Covid-19 and that 5G masts should be burned down to prevent the spread of the virus”.

While stopping people from seeing posts telling them to drink bleach has an obvious public health rationale, critics say that the unit has overstepped its brief by flagging fact-based political opinions for removal by social media companies.

According to the website of Logically – the tech startup contracted by the government to author disinformation reports – the company “ingests millions of data points daily from a multitude of sources, including public channels and closed networks, allowing users to map and analyze multilingual and cross-platform data” in order to “monitor and assess the online landscape for damaging activity and narratives”.

In November last year, the CDU rebranded as the National Security Online Information Team (NSOIT) following accusations that it had chilled free speech. AI minister Jonathan Berry has dismissed the idea that NSOIT exists to “go after” people who disagree with the government as “categorically false”.

‘The right to protest is being eroded.’

The Subject Access Request response shared with Novara Media also shows that a second of Tatchell’s tweets was included in another CDU report on disinformation, this time around operation London Bridge – the official term for the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.

In the tweet, Tatchell said: “The right to protest is being eroded., [sic.] says Andrew Marr, as protesters are arrested for merely holding anti-monarchy signs or verbally urging the abolition of the monarchy. SHAME! We are supposed to be a democracy where dissent is lawful!”

Another political opinion based on facts: the post linked to a write up on the Metro news website about Marr’s comments, which the broadcaster and former political editor of BBC news had made on his LBC programme. At the time, the police were facing widespread criticism following a number of arrests of anti-monarchy protesters, as King Charles III’s accession to the throne took place, for seemingly minor offences or for routine expressions of republican sentiment. One man was arrested for calling out “who elected him?” at the King’s county proclamation ceremony in Oxford.

According to the response to the Subject Access Request, neither of Tatchell’s tweets were flagged as mis/disinformation by the department, the Counter Disinformation Unit, or Logically. Nonetheless, campaigners say that the inclusion of legitimate criticism of the monarchy in reports about online disinformation could lead to a chilling effect on dissent.

Tatchell is appalled by the inclusion of his posts in reports on disinformation. He said: “The CDU is government snooping. Its purpose is to ‘understand disinformation narratives … which could pose a risk to public health, public safety or national security.’ I pose no such risks. I’m astonished that my human rights advocacy and campaigns are deemed a legitimate target for state surveillance.

“It’s quite sinister that my tweets criticising the monarchy have been monitored – all the more so because they express lawful opinions, and are factually true and shared by millions of British people.”

Jake Hurfurt, head of research and investigations at Big Brother Watch, said: “There is no reason for Tatchell’s critiques of the monarchy to feature in misinformation narrative reports.

“The public would expect ‘counter-disinformation’ units to tackle foreign propaganda, not monitor a long-standing activist’s views. Linking dissenting opinions to ‘misinformation’ labels chills free speech and limits how the people can criticise those in power.”

According to Logically, Tatchell’s tweets were included only to provide an idea of the kind of discourse that was happening at the time. A spokesperson said: “Our reports do not exclusively include content that is purely mis or disinformation. In the course of our work, we analyse online content to provide context and situational awareness of a given topic or theme.”

This explanation does not satisfy Tatchell, particularly as the government claims that the CDU “does not, and has never, monitored individuals and all data is anonymised wherever possible”.

“That is clearly a false claim,” said Tatchell. “The DCMS admit my social media has been monitored and I am an individual.”

Novara Media followed up by asking Logically whether it includes pro-monarchy opinions “for context” and “situational awareness”.

A spokesperson said: “We include content on divisive issues of concern to our clients that our expert team of analysts believe has potential to be misused, or taken out of context by malicious actors in ways the original poster did not intend.

“A common tactic of these actors is to spin opinion out of context and manipulate it at the expense of the original poster. We do this to provide our clients with a deeper understanding and context of wider conversations that take place and discourse that may be leveraged by foreign adversaries.”

The department for science, innovation and technology, which now oversees NSOIT, did not respond to Novara Media’s request for comment.

Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.

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