The UK Government has defended its Counter-Disinformation Unit (CDU), which has been branded “Orwellian-sounding” and “suspicious”, insisting that it does not monitor individuals or refer them to social media companies.
Chair of Big Brother Watch Lord Strasburger told peers in Westminster that members of both Houses of Parliament have been included in the dossiers of the unit for “doing nothing more than criticising the Government and their policies”.
The Liberal Democrat peer claimed that the CDU is “monitoring political dissent under the cover of countering disinformation”, arguing that it has “serious ramifications for freedom of speech”.
Meanwhile, independent crossbench peer Lord Singh of Wimbledon branded it “Orwellian-sounding” and Labour frontbencher Lord Stevenson of Balmacara said it “sounds rather suspicious”.
Baroness Chakrabarti, former head of civil liberties organisation Liberty, said she was one of the politicians featured in Big Brother Watch’s CDU report “as a result of freedom of information requests”.
The Labour former shadow attorney general said: “I seem to have been – goodness knows why – a subject of investigation by this unit, despite having played no role in pro-Russian activity or anti-vaccine activity, so I am a little nervous about this.”
Viscount Camrose, minister in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), insisted that no individuals are monitored by the unit.
He said: “The CDU’s role 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.”
The minister insisted that the CDU “does not go after political debate in any way”, but added: “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 Lady Chakrabarti or any other member of this House have been targeted individually by the CDU.”
The description of the CDU on the Government website states that “appropriate action” carried out by the CDU includes posting responses to claims on social media, campaigns to raise awareness of facts, and working with social media companies to encourage them to promote authoritative sources of information and consistently enforce their terms of service.