During the Covid-19 pandemic, a government unit responsible for monitoring social media activity revealed that it shared information with the US State Department.
Documents disclosed a reciprocal arrangement between the UK and the US government’s “Global Engagement Centre,” wherein the UK provided “weekly vaccine hesitancy” reports on multiple occasions.
These reports were compiled by the controversial “Rapid Response Unit” (RRU), a branch of the Cabinet Office established in 2018 to address misleading narratives circulating online. It’s worth noting that the RRU has since been disbanded.
In an unfortunate incident, one of the reports inaccurately labeled Julia Hartley-Brewer, a TalkTV host, as a “known vaccine sceptic.” Additionally, the report included links to tweets from an individual described as a “non-influencer,” who seemed to be an ordinary member of the British public.
Hartley-Brewer took legal action against the Cabinet Office for this mischaracterization, which prompted the government to acknowledge the information-sharing arrangement with the US. Government lawyers confirmed that reports naming Hartley-Brewer were sent to a US government email address within the Global Engagement Centre on three separate occasions in September and October 2021.
In a separate communication, the Cabinet Office issued an apology to Hartley-Brewer for the mistake in categorizing her as a “known vaccine-sceptic.” Simon Baugh, the CEO of the Government Communication Service, acknowledged that the language used in the weekly vaccine hesitancy report was both inaccurate and lacking impartiality.
Documents obtained under data laws revealed that the RRU highlighted Hartley-Brewer’s response to a Telegraph article regarding ministers’ communication with parents about encouraging their children to receive the Covid vaccine. Hartley-Brewer, who has been vaccinated against Covid-19, had been actively advocating for vaccine benefits on her show, even though she opposed vaccine passports.
However, the RRU’s report dated October 13, 2021, claimed that “top tweets” about the article were from “known vaccine sceptics (e.g., Julia Hartley-Brewer…)” expressing opposition to the news.
The same document also emphasized discussions surrounding the potential legal action against a school for administering vaccinations to children without parental consent. It noted that the majority of comments on Facebook and Twitter supported the parents’ stance. It further linked to a tweet from the individual described as a ‘non-influencer’, who identified themselves as a former immunologist and had garnered 29,700 followers on Twitter.
Earlier this year, Big Brother Watch revealed the activities of the RRU and another controversial government division, the Counter Disinformation Unit. Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, expressed concern over the treatment of journalists, politicians, and ordinary citizens, likening it to being treated as the “enemy within.”
Hartley-Brewer characterized the government’s actions as “sinister.” She clarified that her public statements both on-air and online demonstrated she was not a “known vaccine sceptic.” She expressed particular concern about the dissemination of false information by the British government to a US government unit established to counter foreign propaganda.
The Global Engagement Centre maintains a specialized counter-terrorism team and is tasked with exposing and countering efforts aimed at undermining or influencing the policies, security, or stability of the United States, its allies, and partner nations, whether from foreign states or non-state entities.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office stated that the matter is currently under ongoing legal correspondence and therefore, they cannot provide further comments at this time. The Global Engagement Centre has been approached for comment but has not yet responded.