Army Unit Turned Strategy for Adversaries Against Own Citizens: Report
A British army unit was used to perform surveillance upon politicians and journalists who criticized the nation’s response to COVID.
According to a report in the U.K. Daily Mail, the 77th Brigade, which the Mail said had a mission of using “non-lethal engagement and legitimate non-military levers as a means to adapt behaviors of adversaries,” was among the groups deployed to monitor the public.
The military unit was joined by the Counter Disinformation Unit, based in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Rapid Response Unit in the Cabinet Office to go beyond surveillance and counter what was called “disinformation” and “harmful narratives … from purported experts.”
British politician David Davis, who was among the targets of surveillance, told the Mail it was “outrageous that people questioning the government’s policies were subject to covert surveillance.”
The Mail published a statement from a member of the 77th Brigade whose name was not used to explain his role.
He said that in March 2020, he began work with the 77th Brigade “on the basis I would be helping root out foreign state misinformation on social media.”
“We would take screenshots of tweets from people expressing dissatisfaction with the U.K. government’s action against COVID,” he wrote, saying that these were forwarded to a British Cabinet office.
“To skirt the legal difficulties of a military unit monitoring domestic dissent, the view was that unless a profile explicitly stated their real name and nationality, they could be a foreign agent and were fair game. But it is quite obvious that our activities resulted in the monitoring of the U.K. population,” he wrote.
He said the purpose of the surveillance was never stated when it began.
“I entered this role believing I would be uncovering foreign information warfare. Instead, I found the banner of disinformation was a guise under which the British military was being deployed to monitor and flag our own concerned citizens,” he wrote.
“Frankly, the work I was doing should never have happened. This domestic monitoring of citizens seemed not to be driven by a desire to address the public’s concerns, but to identify levers for compliance with controversial government policies,” he wrote.
The surveillance was outlined by the group Big Brother Watch, which said that numerous political leaders, academics and journalists were targeted and that the operation “pressured a Whitehall department to attack newspapers for publishing articles analyzing Covid-19 modeling that it feared would ‘affect compliance’ with pandemic restrictions.”
Journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer, listed among those who was spied upon, called the domestic surveillance “outrageous in a democracy.”
Extraordinary report by @BigBrotherWatch. Our taxes paid for an army unit to *spy* on British citizens – MPs, scientists and journalists including me – who criticised Covid lockdowns and vaccine passports. This is outrageous in a democracy. https://t.co/sOeoWtBHvh
— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@JuliaHB1) January 29, 2023
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, called the revelation “an alarming case of mission creep, where public money and even military power have been misused to monitor academics, journalists, campaigners and members of parliament who criticized the government, particularly during the pandemic.”
“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,” she said.
“Contrary to their stated aims, these government truth units are secretive and harmful to our democracy.”
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