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.
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’.
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