UK minister defends government’s rebranded Counter Disinformation Unit

By on 26/02/2024 | Updated on 27/02/2024
Viscount Camrose
Photo: Roger Harris

Minister Jonathan Berry has defended the UK government’s anti-disinformation unit following questions about its transparency and controversy over online posts flagged for deletion.

The unit, which is linked to Britain’s intelligence agencies, was originally named the Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU). It was founded in 2019 with the aim of identifying and countering false information spread by foreign states to mislead and influence the domestic population. In November last year, it was rebranded the National Security Online Information Team (NSOIT) after being accused of suppressing free speech.

Examples of this included the unit flagging for removal online posts by senior Conservative, Labour and Green politicians which were critical of government policy but did not contain factual inaccuracies.

Following continued criticism, Berry – whose official title is Viscount Camrose and who is a junior minister at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), under which NSOIT sits – defended its position in the House of Commons.

He stressed that it was “not the role of NSOIT or the CDU to go after any individuals, regardless of their political belief”.

“NSOIT looks for large-scale attempts to pollute the information environment, generally as a result of threats from foreign states,” he said, adding: “I am happy to say in front of the House that the idea that its purpose is also to go after, in some ways, those who disagree politically with the government is categorically false.”

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‘Worrying overreach’

Pressed for more information on the composition of the unit, Berry said that NSOIT comprised “civil servants who sit within DSIT, and [the unit] occasionally makes use of external consulting services”. He added that the unit “adjusts its size and membership from within the DSIT team according to the nature of the threat at any given moment”.

Paul Strasburger, a Liberal Democrat peer, pointed to reports highlighting what he called the unit’s “worrying overreach” and asked Berry to explain why NSOIT’s anti-disinformation team was able to work without the oversight of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Berry said that NSOIT was primarily scrutinised by ministers.

“As a national security team, I dare say that we would have some concerns about a standing report to parliament about its activities, but I can continue to reassure the House on its role,” Berry said.

He added: “NSOIT is a national security institution and, as such, the government have a strong preference for not allowing it openly to share national security information for fear of benefitting those who wish us harm.”

In March 2023, Paul Scully, another junior minister at DSIT, denied that the unit was monitoring individual citizens’ online activity. Scully’s defence came in relation to the flagged posts by politicians.

“The Counter Disinformation Unit monitors narratives, trends and attempts to artificially manipulate the information environment online,” Scully said.

“It does not monitor individuals, however the content reviewed may incidentally include personal data, such as names and social media handles embedded within content published on publicly available sites.”

Last year, Sir John Whittingdale, the former minister for data and digital infrastructure, said that NSOIT was “focused exclusively on risks to national security and public safety” and that preserving freedom of expression “is an extremely important principle underpinning the team’s work”.

He said that ministers would “continue to keep the work of the NSOIT under review”.

Read more: Russia’s elections toolkit: dollars, disruption and disinformation

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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