Counter-Disinformation Unit
© The TelegraphProf Carl Heneghan, Molly Kingsley and Dr Alexandre de Figueiredo were monitored by government disinformation units
A secretive government unit worked with social media companies in an attempt to curtail discussion of controversial lockdown policies during the pandemic, The Telegraph can reveal.

The Counter-Disinformation Unit (CDU) was set up by ministers to tackle supposed domestic "threats", and was used to target those critical of lockdown and questioning the mass vaccination of children.

Critics of lockdown had posts removed from social media. There is growing suspicion that social media firms used technology to stop the posts being promoted, circulated or widely shared after being flagged by the CDU or its counterpart in the Cabinet Office.

Documents revealed under Freedom of Information (FoI) and data protection requests showed that the activities of prominent critics of the Government's Covid policies were secretly monitored.

An artificial intelligence firm (AI) was used by the Government to scour social media sites. The company flagged discussions opposing vaccine passports.

Many of the issues being raised were valid at the time and have since been proven to be well-founded. The BBC also took part in secretive meetings of a government policy forum to address the so-called disinformation.

On Friday, MPs and freedom of speech campaigners condemned the disclosures as "truly chilling" and "a tool for censoring British citizens" akin to those of the Chinese Communist Party.

Much of the Government's wider work on disinformation is shrouded in secrecy for "national security" reasons. Large parts of official documents are still redacted.

In America, Twitter has released similar information showing how the US government also introduced a secretive programme to curtail discussion of Covid lockdowns.

It can now be revealed that the activities of Prof Carl Heneghan, the Oxford epidemiologist who has advised Boris Johnson, and Dr Alexandre de Figueiredo, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), were monitored by government disinformation units.

Molly Kingsley, who set up a campaign to keep schools open during the pandemic, also had her social activity monitored.

As well as the CDU, the Government operated a Rapid Response Unit (RRU) in the Cabinet Office that hunted online for content it considered disinformation.

The CDU, which is still operating, was embedded in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The department has "trusted flagger" status at social media companies including Facebook and Twitter, which means that requests for content to be removed are fast-tracked for consideration.

In some cases, individuals whose social media posts were recorded by the units have subsequently faced sanctions by Twitter and Facebook. Ministers denied asking for posts by Prof Heneghan, Dr de Figueiredo or Ms Kingsley to be removed.

The Government has said that the CDU "is focused on helping the Government understand online disinformation narratives and understand attempts to artificially manipulate the information environment".

The Government also ran a Counter-Disinformation Policy Forum, which brought together civil servants from the DCMS and technology giants - including Facebook and Google - as well as the BBC to discuss how to limit the spread of what was considered Covid-19 disinformation.

This forum and the two units were not the only way the Government tried to apply pressure on social media companies during the pandemic.

The Lockdown Files, published by The Telegraph earlier this year, revealed that Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, repeatedly lobbied Sir Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister and now a Facebook executive, about vaccine misinformation.

Facebook has been open about its efforts to tackle misinformation about Covid. During the pandemic, it removed posts and in April 2020 alone put warning labels on about 50 million pieces of content.

The CDU was established in 2019 and was focused on the European elections before turning to focus on the pandemic.

During Covid, the unit worked closely with the Cabinet Office's now defunct RRU, whose responsibilities included tackling "purported 'experts' issuing dangerous misinformation".

The RRU has admitted in an FoI obtained by Big Brother Watch and passed to The Telegraph that it made requests for social media posts to be taken down.

As part of its work, the Cabinet Office also passed the CDU "media monitoring" reports.

Documents revealed that the material flagged to the CDU included articles published by The Telegraph.

One of these was a piece by Ms Kingsley published in February 2022, arguing that it was "indefensible" that children's lives were still not back to normal when the rest of society was. She urged ministers to make a clear statement that children's extracurricular activities should not be subject to additional curbs.

One of Ms Kingsley's tweets from December 2020, in which she said it would be "unforgivable to close schools", was also passed to the CDU.

Sir Gavin Williamson, then the education secretary, closed schools days later. However, he has since admitted that the decision caused a major row with Mr Hancock and that he considered resigning.

When the dispute was exposed by The Telegraph's Lockdown Files investigation, Sir Gavin said the closure "wasn't done for the right reasons" and that he regretted agreeing to it.

The RRU also logged articles by Prof Heneghan published in The Telegraph and The Spectator.

One of these questioned the science behind the rule of six - later abandoned by Government - and discredited the data used by the Government to justify the second lockdown.

He had social media posts about face masks and the accuracy of coronavirus death data removed after the technology giants raised concerns about Covid disinformation.

The CDU has also commissioned reports from an external artificial intelligence firm, Logically, which uses AI to trawl the internet.

The company has been paid more than £1.2 million by the DCMS since January 2021 for work that included helping to "build a comprehensive picture of potentially harmful misinformation and disinformation".

In one of the firm's reports for the CDU, a post by Dr De Figueiredo, the LSHTM researcher who also works for the Vaccine Confidence Project, was flagged.

He wrote: "People who think we should be mass vaccinating children against Covid-19 poorly understand at least one of the following: (a) risk, especially absolute risk (b) ethics (c) natural immunity (d) vaccine confidence (e) long Covid."

When Dr De Figueiredo made the comment, the Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunisation had opted not to recommend mass vaccinations for children.

Nadhim Zahawi, the former minister for Covid vaccines deployment, said he believed the Government included Dr De Figuerido's tweet because of "c--k-up rather than conspiracy".

He added in an interview for The Telegraph's forthcoming podcast, The Lockdown Files, that the CDU was there to combat "clearly completely wrong or false information".

Miriam Cates, a Conservative MP, said: "Any attempt by governments to shut down legitimate debate is hugely concerning, but to discover that DCMS actively sought to censor the views of those who were speaking up for children's welfare is truly chilling.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that many of the foundations of our democracy - such as free speech and parliamentary scrutiny - were completely disregarded during the pandemic."

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: "The very concept of 'wrong information' dictated by a central authority is open to abuse and should be considered far more critically, lest we mirror Chinese-style censorship.

"Whilst everyone would expect the Government and tech giants to act against foreign hostile disinformation campaigns, we should be incredibly cautious about these powers being turned inwards to scan, suppress and censor the lawful speech of Brits for wrongthink, as is shockingly the case right now."

A Whitehall source said the comparison with China was "just plain wrong".

The source added: "On the contrary, the unit was set up to counter the threats disinformation poses to, among other things, UK national security, much of which is spread by hostile states."

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Cabinet minister, called for the Covid inquiry to investigate government disinformation units.

"The inquiry clearly ought to investigate the oppressive methods used to override dissent," he said.

"It is clear from Hancock's messages that steps were taken to manipulate public opinion and now it appears underhand methods may have been employed to stop free speech.

"This is not what ought to happen in a free country."

A government spokesman said: "The unit's purpose is to track narratives and trends using publicly available information online to protect public health and national security.

"It has never tracked the activity of individuals and has a blanket ban on referring journalists and MPs to social media platforms.

"None of the people named in this report were ever referred to social media platforms by the Government and any claim otherwise is objectively false.

"The RRU, which closed in July 2022, tracked government policies and important issues - not individuals. It used publicly available information, including material shared on social media, to assess UK disinformation trends and narratives."

A BBC spokesman said the broadcaster attended the Counter-Disinformation Policy Forum in an observer-only capacity.