CLAIMS that a British Army unit monitored and recorded UK citizens’ social media output for Covid disinformation are being investigated, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said.
Big Brother Watch claimed that soldiers from the Army’s 77th Brigade collated tweets from British citizens about Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic and passed them to the Cabinet Office as part of wider cross-Government efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation about Covid-19.
An investigation by the civil liberties campaign group said a whistleblower had claimed that troops were used to “spy” on the British public.
In April 2020, the UK’s former chief of the defence staff General Sir Nick Carter revealed that the secretive 77th Brigade was involved in countering coronavirus misinformation online.
Ministers have also said the 77th Brigade was involved in assisting a wider Government effort to counter disinformation and misinformation about Covid-19.
Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Wallace said the unit’s counter-disinformation capabilities have been used to assess UK disinformation trends, but added that the 77th Brigade was intended to act against hostile actors overseas.
He added: “It is not to be involved in regulating, policing or even reporting opinion that it may or may not agree with.”
Conservative former cabinet minister David Davis (above), who, according to Big Brother Watch, was monitored as part of a cross-Government group, called for the issue to be reviewed, and Wallace issued an assurance that he had already instructed for it to be looked into.
He told the Commons: “Colleagues may have read reports this weekend about activity conducted by the Army’s counter-disinformation unit in 77th Brigade.
“Online disinformation from foreign state actors is a serious threat to the United Kingdom, which is why during the pandemic we brought together expertise from … across Government to monitor disinformation about Covid.
“77th Brigade is a hybrid unit of regular and reserve personnel that was established in 2015. It delivers information activities as part of broader military effects against hostile state actors and violent extremist organisations based outside the UK.
“It uses publicly available data, including material shared on social media platforms, to assess UK disinformation trends. It is not to be involved in regulating, policing or even reporting opinion that it may or may not agree with.”
Davis said in the Commons: “I know him well enough that when he tells us that he gave clear instructions and guidelines to the Brigade to only operate foreign powers and extremists, he was telling the exact truth.
“Will he however review the issue and ensure that his guidelines have been followed in all cases?”
Wallace said: “Yes, I have, and I have already instructed that we look into not only the story, but indeed my instructions that I personally issued after a visit were carried out.”
A Government spokesman told the Telegraph: “Online disinformation is a serious threat to the UK, which is why during the pandemic we brought together expertise from across Government to monitor disinformation about Covid.
“These units used publicly available data, including material shared on social media platforms, to assess UK disinformation trends and narratives.
“They did not target individuals or take any action that could impact anyone’s ability to discuss and debate issues freely.”