Beyond Integrity Initiative: The Scale of UK Government Counter-Disinformation

The recent hack of the Institute for Statecraft’s Integrity Initiative programme offered a rare glimpse into a part of the government’s propaganda machine which it really doesn’t want anyone to see. Which raises the question, what else is there?

The Integrity Initiative was created to do the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Counter-Disinformation and Media Development Programme, led by Andy Pryce. To pursue that agenda, the Institute for Statecraft, the ‘charitable’ think thank behind Integrity Initiative received £1,233,711 from the FCO over the course of 2018.

Other FCO-funded organisations include BBC Media Action (£6,165,469 in 2018), the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the British Council (£189,568,186 in 2018 — total budget; no way of knowing how much goes towards media development), all of whom are involved in so-called media development work overseas, including in the Baltic states and Ukraine, so that “Russian speakers, wherever they are, have a choice in the media they consume and are able to access reliable and objective information.

So much for efforts abroad. What about tackling the rampant ’disinformation’ that we're told exists here at home?

To deal with that problem, in April last year, Theresa May set up a ‘Rapid Response Unit’ inside the Cabinet Office as a sub-unit of the Government Communication Service. Given an initial six months funding, the Rapid Response Unit brought together a “team of analysts, data scientists and media and digital experts,” armed with cutting edge software to “work round the clock to monitor online breaking news stories and social media discussion.

According to the Rapid Response Unit’s head, Fiona Bartosch, the team can react rapidly and intelligently to misinformation and disinformation and help government assess the effectiveness of their narrative. This includes working with the National Security Communications Team during “times of crisis.

For example,” Bartosch reports, “during the military action in Syria, the team worked continuously to identify misinformation, implementing targeted digital communication activity to key audiences where appropriate.

RRU analysts were the first to flag instances of misinformation (such as Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s claim about the origin of the nerve agent used in the Salisbury poisoning) and highlighted the lack of prominence of HMG information when people searched for Syria news.

According to Alex Aiken, Executive Director for Government Communications, “Due to the way that search engine algorithms work, when people searched for information on the [air strikes on Syria] … unreliable sources were appearing above official UK government information. In fact, no government information was appearing on the first 15 pages of Google results. We know that search is an excellent indicator of intention. It can reflect bias in information received from elsewhere.

The unit therefore ensured those using search terms that indicated bias – such as ‘false flag’ – were presented with factual information on the UK’s response. The RRU improved the ranking from below 200 to number 1 within a matter of hours.

How did they do that? Any expert in search engine optimisation will tell you that getting Google rankings improved significantly is a long and arduous task — certainly not something which can be achieved in “a matter of hours”. Does the Cabinet Office have a hotline to Google? I can’t think of any other explanation.

Two months following the establishment of the Rapid Response Unit, Theresa May attended the G7 Charlevoix Summit in Canada. There she secured agreement with the other G7 nations to establish a ‘Rapid Response Mechanism’, to rapidly deal with ‘hostile state activity’ through “coordinated attribution of hostile activity” and “joint work to assert a common narrative and response”.

At the time of writing, we do not know whether the work done by the Cabinet Office Rapid Response Unit feeds into the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism; the similarity of their names may be coincidental. We have asked the Cabinet Office to clarify the situation. What is clear, though, is the importance the May regime places on controlling the narrative.

Fiona Bartosch, head of the Rapid Response Unit, who we met a few paragraphs ago, has another job. She is also responsible for managing the Cabinet Office’s Media & Marketing Data Unit, another sub-unit of the Government Communication Service, which looks after the government’s “most transparent outcomes-based … media buying contract”. Media buying equals advertising.

According to Bartosch, civil servants should avoid “directly engaging with creators of false content”. This, I presume, includes funding creators of “false content”, because in late 2017, the Media and Marketing Unit pulled all advertising from YouTube because government advertisements were appearing “in proximity to extremist material” hosted on the platform.

Soon after, the government announced that it would review its media buying contract. That review resulted in Dentsu Aegis being replaced by Omnicom as the preferred supplier for managing the £140 million, or is that £600 million, or possibly £800 million, contract. The tender documents clearly show that the value of the contract is around £800 million to cover 2018-2020. That is a staggering budget for domestic propaganda.

Last week Alex Aiken announced that the Rapid Response Unit has now received permanent funding. Its startup phase is over. He told PRWeek that he has “set out three government communication priorities for the year ahead – raising standards, strengthening our democracy and reassuring communities. The work of the Rapid Response Unit directly supports these priorities and highlights the need to continue our efforts in tackling disinformation.

That effort to tackle domestic “disinformation”, along with control of the government’s advertising budget is in the hands of a single civil servant: Fiona Bartosch.

Ironically enough, in a written parliamentary question published last June, Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said that the role of the Rapid Response Unit was to monitor “news and information being shared and engaged with online, including misinformation and disinformation,” finding ways to collaborate across Whitehall to “respond quickly, accurately and with integrity.”

Should that have been a capital ‘i’?