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Counter Disinformation Unit

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the work of the Counter Disinformation Unit and its impact on freedom of speech.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I draw the House’s attention to the fact that I chair Big Brother Watch, which recently reported on the Counter Disinformation Unit.

The role of the Counter Disinformation Unit—CDU—is to understand disinformation narratives and attempts to manipulate the information environment. This has included disinformation threats relating to the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Freedom of speech and expression are important principles that underpin the work of the CDU, including the fact that it does not monitor individuals or political debate, or refer content from politicians, political parties or journalists to social media companies.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Research by Big Brother Watch has revealed that Members of both Houses of Parliament, including prominent Conservatives, have been included in the dossiers of the Counter Disinformation Unit and the rapid response unit for doing nothing more than criticising the Government and their policies. Does the Minister agree that the CDU’s monitoring of political dissent, under the cover of countering disinformation, has serious ramifications for freedom of expression and our democracy more broadly?

I thank the noble Lord for that question but do not accept the characterisation that he gives. I am indeed familiar with the Big Brother Watch report that he refers to. The CDU does not monitor individuals or politicians. It does not refer politicians, journalists or elected officials to social media companies. It looks instead for overall narratives that attempt to interfere with or pollute our information environment.

My Lords, as I understand it, the Orwellian-sounding Counter Disinformation Unit was set up to counter disinformation threats to our democratic way of life. Can this unlikely-sounding unit—if it really exists—be used to counter the Government’s appeal to latent racism, with their suggestion that hordes of refugees are coming to our shores in small boats, threatening our way of life, when in reality they constitute less than 5% of annual immigration?

I accept the point made that the Counter Disinformation Unit sounds rather suspicious. The unit tracks narratives and trends using publicly available information. We all like a good story, so where can we find these narratives and trends. Are they published? Where is the unit established, and what is its budget and its staffing level?

The unit is established within the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Its existence and mission, and indeed the legal basis for its activities, are posted on GOV.UK. Because the great majority of its activities are now directed at overseas state actors hostile to our interests, we do not share in a public forum any operational details pertaining to its activity, simply for fear of giving an advantage to our overseas adversaries. However, I recognise the importance and seriousness of the question. To that end, while I cannot in a public forum provide operational details, if the noble Lord or any other noble Lords would like an operational briefing, I would be happy to arrange that.

My Lords, the CDU outsources its surveillance activities to opaque companies such as Logically and Faculty. It does not respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. Its budget is not public. Is it not quite unacceptable that there is no parliamentary oversight by any Select Committee, and is the place for that not the Intelligence and Security Committee?

I am delighted to reassure the noble Lord that it is subject to parliamentary oversight. The DSIT Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament, and indeed to the relevant parliamentary Select Committee.

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who featured in that Big Brother Watch report as a result of Freedom of Information requests. I seem to have been—goodness knows why—a subject of investigation by this unit, despite having played no role in pro-Russian or anti-vaccine activity. I am a little nervous about this. Perhaps I could take up the noble Viscount on his offer, with a group of any others who feel a little uncomfortable about what we are hearing.

As I say, the work of the CDU does not target any individual, and specifically it does not refer to any social media company the publications and writings of any Member of Parliament or any journalist. It does not go after political debate in any way. Inevitably, we are blessed in this House to have a number of prominent thinkers and writers, and their thinking and writing would end up in all kinds of departmental media summaries, as you would expect. Any subject access request would necessarily pick those up. That is not to suggest that the noble Baroness or any other Member of this House have been targeted individually by the CDU.

My Lords, is the Minister able to assure us that the Counter Disinformation Unit never pressurised anyone in big tech to censor by proxy? The public are owed that explanation, not just parliamentarians. Can the Minister comment on the danger of weaponising phrases such as misinformation and disinformation to discredit inconvenient truths and to silence dissent? These are serious concerns that members of the public have, and the Minister should answer the Freedom of Information requests when they are given to him, as requested.

I recognise the concern— I really do. I suggest that the greatest threat to our freedom of speech and freedom of expression is in fact disinformation itself, because however good or true a post might be, if nobody believes it, it is absolutely useless. To answer the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, the CDU does not place pressure on social media organisations and cannot oblige social media organisations of any kind to remove posts. What it can do is advise them that certain bits of content might or might not adhere to their terms of service.

My Lords, surely it is the job of politicians to put forward the truth and dispute what they consider to be unreasonable or disinformation with facts, reason, logic and ridicule, not to have a secret institution—which should be closed down.

Well, its existence is being debated here. I have lost the thread of my answer but I will provide a more satisfactory answer to my noble friend.

My Lords, a moment ago the Minister talked about the relevant Select Committee. Could he tell us what the relevant Select Committee is for this unit and when it last conducted an investigation into its work?

The DSIT Select Committee —or, formerly, before the machinery of government changed, the DCMS Select Committee—keeps the unit’s performance under constant review, as with any group or team in government.

My Lords, the Minister forgot—I think inadvertently—to answer the request from my noble friend. Would he be prepared to meet a delegation, as she would like him to?

My Lords, we went through considerable consideration of foreign state threats during the passage of the National Security Act, during which the Government did not present any information about this unit. We now have an independent reviewer of national security legislation for foreign state threats. Why is this unity not within the remit of the independent reviewer?

The purpose of this unit is to monitor information threats, whether state-backed or otherwise. While it would certainly engage with all the necessary other parts of government, its work is not necessarily seen as a part of that body.