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Shadowy UK Unit Surveilled Telegram Posts, Had Hourly Contact With Social Platforms

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The Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU), an enigmatic arm of the UK government that monitors misinformation, was relentlessly liaising with social media platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes on an hourly basis. This revelation came from the unit’s leader, Sarah Connolly, who spilled the beans on the operation in front of MPs.

Zooming in: Connolly depicted the unit as primarily tasked with “passing information over” to social media companies to persuade them to pull the plug on certain posts. She claimed that the unit was in cahoots with “almost all” platforms, engaging in discussions “daily, sometimes hourly,” The Telegraph reported.

The decision-making process was swift. Connolly detailed, “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 CDU’s flagging efforts weren’t for naught, as 90% of content flagged by the CDU was either annihilated or its diffusion curtailed.

Another hat: Connolly was pulling double duty as she also chaired the Counter-Disinformation Policy Forum, a group tracking misinformation for six months during the pandemic. This forum was essentially designed to take the baton for the CDU’s “sometimes hourly” contact with social media firms.

What counts as disinformation?: Connolly’s disclosures indicate that the CDU isn’t frugal with labeling content as disinformation. She cited vaccine skeptic discussions surrounding side effects and claims of hasty development as the most concerning content.

Voices of dissent: MP David Davis isn’t onboard with the CDU’s modus operandi. He urged for the unit’s dissolution and a subsequent investigation by a parliamentary committee. Davis lambasted the unit, saying the “most paranoid wing of Government is interfering in the democratic process” and called for an investigation backed by the “biggest combination of power, access and speed.” Davis has spoken out against such practices in the past.

Opaque operations: The government is tight-lipped when it comes to divulging specifics about the CDU, such as staff count and budget.

Official word: A government spokesperson chimed in, stating, “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.”

Telegram: Though it was not one of the platforms the government had hourly contact with, the CDU also monitored Telegram posts, including ones related to Prof. Carl Heneghan, a prominent epidemiologist and a critic of lockdown measures. The information is sourced from documents released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and obtained by The Telegraph.

The App: Telegram, the messaging app in question, is WhatsApp’s lesser-known cousin, with a bent on free speech. It has end-to-end encryption for confidential chatter and features public channels, where posts are on display for all.

The Data Trail: The documents reveal “sample Telegram posts” concerning Prof. Heneghan’s sharp critiques on the utility of face masks in stopping the coronavirus. It’s worth noting that the CDU’s data cache traces public channels on Telegram, not private conversations.

Official Stance: Sources within say that gathering these posts was aimed to “better understand how to analyze narratives on social media.” They deny any ulterior motives, asserting that the CDU did not see it as “an attempt to identify disinformation.”

Smoke and Mirrors? Despite assurances that the CDU “has never tracked the activity of individuals” and that Prof. Heneghan was “never monitored,” the extent of data collected by the unit remains shrouded in mystery. This discovery is turning heads.

Shadow Play: The plot thickens with whispers of intelligence agencies possibly colluding with the CDU. The government, tight-lipped and citing national security, has only added fuel to the conspiracy fire.

Prof. Heneghan Weighs In: The professor himself isn’t mincing words. He told The Telegraph, “The effect of these tactics is chilling.” He added, “The Counter-Disinformation Unit’s tactics included looking at posts from ‘popular channels’ on Telegram, a platform we didn’t use. It’s likely these were groups, but it’s not clear to us how they were identified or how they gathered the material.”

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