A secretive government Covid unit accused of seeking to suppress free speech during the pandemic was in “hourly” contact with social media firms, the official in charge of the operation has disclosed.
The civil servant – who can today be named as Sarah Connolly – said that one of the Counter Disinformation Unit’s (CDU’s) main functions was “passing information over” to companies such as Facebook and Twitter to “encourage… the swift takedown” of posts.
The Telegraph revealed earlier this month that the CDU worked with social media companies in an attempt to curtail discussion of controversial lockdown policies during the pandemic.
Last night David Davis, the former Conservative Cabinet minister whose comments were logged by the unit, called for the CDU to be shut down and for a parliamentary committee to investigate it.
He said the “most paranoid wing of Government is interfering in the democratic process”, and a parliamentary inquiry with the “biggest combination of power, access and speed” was required.
Separately, the BBC – who attended government meetings at which so-called misinformation was discussed – was accused of acting as “the broadcast arm of the Government” during the pandemic, as journalists described being mocked if they tried to give a voice to lockdown sceptics.
Head of CDU revealed
The identity of the head of the CDU was a mystery, but it can now be disclosed that Ms Connolly, a career civil servant, led it throughout the pandemic and remains in charge.
She previously worked on anti-terror policies for the Home Office, but had already joined the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) when it started monitoring Covid disinformation under Oliver Dowden’s leadership.
It is unclear if other, more senior ministers were involved in the CDU. There is growing speculation that the unit may have links to the intelligence services, but the Government has repeatedly refused to give certain details about it for “national security” reasons.
In remarks to MPs, unearthed by the Telegraph, Ms Connolly laid bare the extent of the Government’s influence over social media.
Ms Connolly told MPs that the CDU was in contact with “almost all” social media platforms, and that discussions were “daily, sometimes hourly”.
When asked about the CDU’s process for having posts removed, Ms Connolly said: “If somebody from the cell says: ‘We are worried about this,’ that goes immediately to the top of the pile. Whoever it is in whatever company.”
The Government confirmed last night that social media firms had taken action on more than 90 per cent of the posts referred to them by the CDU during the pandemic, often by deleting them or using algorithms to ensure they were not seen as widely.
Ms Connolly described the CDU as a “cell” within Government, using the same systems as those in place to stop terrorist content spreading online.
She said one of its “big” functions was “talking to social media platforms and passing information over. It gets information back from them, and encourages that swift takedown – the swift dealing with the platforms. The cell has daily interactions with almost all the platforms”.
She is also named on documents obtained by this newspaper as the chair of the Counter-Disinformation Policy Forum – a group that operated for six months during the pandemic, which included a member of BBC staff, alongside tech companies, academics and lobby groups.
Ms Connolly told MPs that the forum was designed to take the “sometimes hourly” contact of the CDU with tech companies and “raise it to the next level”.
‘Climate of fear’ over anti-Government reporting at BBC
Current and former BBC staff have told the Telegraph that, during the pandemic, a “climate of fear” existed within the corporation among those who argued that its reporting lacked balance, saying they were branded “dissenters”.
Three journalists who gave evidence to a parliamentary group in private last year told the Telegraph they were ignored when they raised their concerns about impartiality with senior managers.
One senior BBC editor tried to organise, via a secret WhatsApp group, a “pushback” to stop its journalists backing Government policy, but they were too fearful of losing their jobs to join the proposed rebellion.
Today’s revelations raise questions about Ms Connolly’s influence, as both chair of the policy forum and leader of the CDU inside Government.
Her comments – made just as the vaccine rollout was beginning – also call into question what criteria the CDU use to make its judgments.
Her testimony suggests that the CDU takes a broad view of what qualifies as disinformation.
Addressing MPs, she said that the most concerning types of anti-vaccine material included discussions about side-effects and the speed with which it was produced.
“‘The vaccine was done too quickly’, ‘it is not safe’, those kind of narratives,” she said.
While the vaccines were safe for most people, coroners have ruled that a small number of people died from rare reactions to the AstraZeneca jab.
Academics have also expressed concerns about the speed of some vaccine trials.
Connolly took control like a ‘puppeteer’
Last night, sources said the CDU had been allowed to expand its reach under Ms Connolly, who took on the role of director of security and online harms in 2017.
One blamed a revolving door of culture secretaries, and said a rapid succession of ministers with little experience of the sector or ambition to stay in the DCMS had allowed Ms Connolly to take control like a “puppeteer”.
The CDU moved from the DCMS to become the responsibility of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology earlier this year, but the source said her control of the unit appeared unlikely to change because there was a lack of oversight from No 10.
“This is an abject failure of the centre [of Government],” they said.
Last night, government sources praised Ms Connolly’s work ethic and professionalism. “As a hard-working civil servant, she’s an impartial adviser – not a puppeteer,” one said.
Social media posts monitored by the CDU and the Cabinet Office’s now-defunct Rapid Response Unit include comments by respected scientists such as Dr Alexandre de Figueiredo from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who argued against the mass vaccination of children against Covid-19. The units also flagged discussions questioning lockdown and vaccine passports.
Government tight-lipped about disinformation unit
The Government has repeatedly refused to give details about the CDU’s budget or the number of staff it employs, but it is known that during the pandemic it used an external AI firm to trawl through posts.
A Government spokesman said: “As we have repeatedly made clear, the primary purpose of the unit was to track narratives, not individuals. It does not have, and has never had, the power to remove online content – on occasions where it encountered content considered to be in breach of social media platforms’ own terms of service, it was referred to them for consideration.
“When referrals were made during Covid, over 90 per cent of them were ultimately found to be in breach of terms of service. It is important to remember that this engagement with social media platforms was undertaken at the height of an unprecedented pandemic when the government’s overriding concern was to protect public health.”
Twitter could not be reached for comment, although it is understood that it did not act on CDU referrals at the same rate as other social media firms.
Facebook owner Meta has previously said it does not “allow false claims about the vaccines or vaccination programmes which public health experts have advised us could lead to Covid-19 vaccine rejection. This includes false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients, development, existence or conspiracies related to the vaccine or vaccination programme”.
The BBC said that it rejected the characterisation of its Covid coverage and said it featured a range of voices. The broadcaster said it attended the Counter Disinformation Policy Forum in an observer-only capacity.
A spokesman for the broadcaster said: “We totally reject this characterisation of our Covid coverage; we featured a range of voices during the pandemic, including those sceptical of lockdowns, in line with our duty of due impartiality.
“We do not recognise this description of our working environment. Like other news organisations the stories we cover are the subject of robust editorial discussion and debate.
“As we’ve already made clear, the BBC attended the Counter Disinformation Policy Forum in an observer-only capacity. The person who attended was not a BBC News executive and played absolutely no role in editorial decision making.”