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An MP is calling for an investigation into a government unit created to battle misinformation – after she was logged by it for calling Boris Johnson liar.
Former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas was reportedly flagged multiple times by the counter-disinformation unit (CDU) after tweets that criticised ministers and government policy over Covid. She said her inclusion in a series of reports about ‘Covid mis/disinformation’ and ‘vaccine hesitancy’ amounted to “staggering overreach” by ministers.
A campaign group has claimed it showed the government “dangerously blurred the lines between genuine disinformation and legitimate political dissent”. However, a government spokesperson said the inclusion in these reports did not mean someone was suspected of disinformation. And it said the CDU doesn’t report content from journalists and MPs to social media platforms.
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The CDU was set up in 2019 as part of the Department of Culture. It is now within the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.
The calls for an investigation in the CDU comes after Big Brother Watch and Lucas issued a subject access request for details held on her by the CDU and the now-scrapped rapid response unit (RRU) media monitoring service. The request found that Lucas had been included in a CDU “Covid mis/disinformation report” after she was scathing about the government’s purchasing of medical equipment during the Covid pandemic.
A tweet where Lucas called Dominic Raab “arrogant, complacent and patronising” after he stood in for Boris Johnson during a prime minister’s questions was also flagged in 2020. As was a tweet where she claimed the UK government was poorly prepared for a pandemic.
And, ahead of the local elections in 2021, her name was added to a CDU report on “mis/disinformation narratives” after she accused Boris Johnson of being a liar. However, Government issues say that many of the examples come from the RRU – which was closed last year – and they say it was largely just a media-monitoring unit.
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Nonetheless, Lucas – who has said she will stand down as an MP at the next election – has criticised the CDU. She told The Guardian: “This is simply staggering overreach from a government which has had, at the very least, a socially distanced relationship with the truth on multiple occasions in recent years.”
“The right of citizens to share entirely valid and objective criticisms of government ministers without fear of the consequences is a cornerstone of our democracy, and must be protected.”
“If these disinformation units focused their efforts on genuine disinformation, dangerous conspiracy theories and foreign hostility, rather than my tweets, our politics might be in a better place. The CDU is clearly not fit for purpose, and a full investigation must be opened immediately.”
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Big Brother Watch’s director Silkie Carlo echoed the criticism levelled by Lucas. Carlo said it showed the government had “dangerously blurred the lines between genuine disinformation and legitimate political dissent”.
Carlo continued: “It’s particularly alarming to see an elected MP’s criticisms of the government logged in reports on so-called ‘election misinformation’, which could then be subject to the most harsh restrictions, including around election periods.”
However, a government spokesperson said: “The CDU tracks narratives using publicly available information – it has never monitored the activity of any individual and has a blanket ban on referring content from journalists and MPs to social media platforms.
“Mentions in subject access requests are not evidence that the unit considered those references to be disinformation. We are happy to discuss the work of the CDU with any parliamentarian should they wish to find out more about the important work of the unit.”
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