The sinister trolling of journalists by the Tory government has reached fever pitch

Boris Johnson Tory government
Steve Topple

One of the more sinister developments during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has been the way official government accounts deal with journalists on Twitter. There appears to be a coordinated strategy to repeatedly dismiss damaging stories directly to the person who wrote them. But in recent days, this effective state trolling has reached a new high. And it seems to be a new approach from Boris Johnson’s government. But it has its origins in national security.

State-sponsored trolling

The Canary recently reported that the government has backtracked on its pledge to help rough sleepers during the pandemic. Manchester Evening News (MEN) broke a story that the Tories had effectively pulled the plug on funding for councils to support rough sleepers. But while this was the actual story, another one emerged in the wake of it.

Jennifer Williams is the MEN journalist who wrote the story. It was based on “leaked” documents she’d seen. But following its publication, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) took to Twitter to call her out:

Williams responded, sharing part of the leaked report. But as Dan O’Connell neatly summed up:

Sinister indeed. Because the problem is, government trolling of journalists is now becoming widespread. And it’s not just the MHCLG doing it, either.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is doing similar, targeting both Mirror and Guardian journalists:

It also targets specialist publications like Health Service Journal (HSJ):

And this is just the past few days. DHSC trolling of blue tick writers was also going on at the start of April:

The Home Office has also been harassing authors:

Oddly, if you’re the Sun though, you get government endorsement:

So, what’s behind this flurry of government accounts calling out mainstream journalists on Twitter?

Rapid Response Unit

This trolling is being partly run by the Rapid Response Unit. It works out of the Cabinet Office and Downing Street. In March, it openly announced what it was doing, saying:

When false narratives are identified, the government’s Rapid Response Unit coordinates with departments across Whitehall to deploy the appropriate response. This can include a direct rebuttal on social media, working with platforms to remove harmful content and ensuring public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.

The unit itself is not new. It was first launched as a pilot in 2018 to “support the reclaiming of a fact-based public debate”. It became an actual operation after the pilot in 2019. Essentially, it targets fake news, but also analyses trends in the news cycle, what stories gain traction, and so on. But what’s new for this year is the government organisation the Rapid Response Unit works with.

Johnson’s government is also operating the Counter Disinformation Cell out of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). According to Civil Service World, this unit aims to “bring together teams from across Whitehall” to “map the spread of disinformation” and coordinate the government’s response. But what’s most interesting is that this “cell” isn’t new.

The Bourne Duplicity

In a storyline fit for a spy film, Civil Service World says the cell has been “reactivated”, with the government recently ‘christening’ it the Counter Disinformation Cell. It noted on 1 April that:

In addition to officials from across government, the cell will also contain experts from the tech industry. Over the coming days and weeks, it will engage with ‘social media platforms and disinformation specialists from civil society and academia to establish a comprehensive overview of the extent, scope and impact of disinformation related to coronavirus.

But if, as Civil Service World says, this cell isn’t new – what did it do before? Civil Service World noted that:

The unit has been used in the past to counter disinformation, but is not a permanent fixture in DCMS.

It is unclear exactly what the cell has done before. But it sounds similar in scope to the government’s updated national security strategy from 2018, called the Fusion Doctrine. PA Consulting noted that the idea behind the doctrine was to make government departments work “synergistically”; that is, together as one. It specifically noted:

This team ethos is most visible during high-intensity military or humanitarian operations, and when the military and civil authorities co-operate in activities such as the response to the Salisbury nerve gas attack and severe weather.

In other words, when there’s some sort of threat to national security, government departments will work together to coordinate their response. Coronavirus is one such time, with even the army getting in on the act of ‘countering disinformation’.

Sinister totalitarianism?

There is a need to counter true disinformation during the pandemic. For example, as Civil Service World outlined:

misleading advice shared by self-styled – but unqualified – experts, as well as cybercrime campaigns seeking to take advantage of the outbreak.

But it seems the social media strategy of government departments is to troll journalists they don’t approve of. The method is new, but the idea behind it isn’t. This poses major questions about how, in a public health emergency, the government is clearly deploying national security threat tactics often reserved for countering so-called ‘Russian disinformation’. And moreover, how much actual fact is being called out as ‘inaccurate’ in the Tories’ desperate bid to control the public narrative, and ultimately, their reputations.

What this sinister strategy does show is the almost totalitarian approach Johnson’s government is taking to the pandemic. Because when even the most mainstream of publications like the Mirror and the Guardian are under Twitter-attack from the Tories, something is seriously wrong. And moreover, if in the aftermath of coronavirus this approach continues, it should cause major public concern. Not that the government targeting journalists who are simply holding it to account isn’t concerning enough.

Featured image via 10 Downing Street – YouTube

We need your help ...

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our world, fast. And we will do all we can to keep bringing you news and analysis throughout. But we are worried about maintaining enough income to pay our staff and minimal overheads.

Now, more than ever, we need a vibrant, independent media that holds the government to account and calls it out when it puts vested economic interests above human lives. We need a media that shows solidarity with the people most affected by the crisis – and one that can help to build a world based on collaboration and compassion.

We have been fighting against an establishment that is trying to shut us down. And like most independent media, we don’t have the deep pockets of investors to call on to bail us out.

Can you help by chipping in a few pounds each month?

The Canary Support us
  • Show Comments
    1. It’s been quite an achievement by the Johnson government, does anybody know a single person who believes a word that comes out of it or indeed from one of the many taxpayer funded yet so called ‘independent’ authorities?
      40 years of neoliberal Thatcherite corruption.
      Liars and charlatans, all.

    2. The governmen makes it so easy for those of desiring a simple mind, as when are raising children .
      Just remember children the Governemnt has false claims, is inaccurate, and highly misleading. No need to be clever like they are. You have a future to think about.

    3. As the man said “Propaganda is to the democracies what the bludgeon is to dictatorships.” This is the closing down of space in which views can be aired and more importantly evidence assessed. It’s right there should always be debate about evidence, but that is not simple denial. When the State chooses to deny the accuracy of whatever is inconvenient, thought control is in action. This technique puts individual journalists under pressure. It inevitably engenders the anxiety that every story which contradicts the government will be gainsaid. As Voltaire remarked: “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” Democracy, of course, is supposed to attenuate if not eliminate the danger. Democracy is under threat. If a collective response to this kind of bullying is not mounted, the stress of being a journalist who dares to report what the government doesn’t like will lead to conformity. It is in the nature of the State to demand compliance. The State is an overweeningly powerful institution. It can be used for good but only under strict democratic control.; the very thing State power dislikes. Ultimately the answer is to replace the State by social entities but in the meantime, the NUJ needs to defend its members against what is an attack on their independence and integrity.

    Leave a Reply

    Join the conversation

    Please read our comment moderation policy here.