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Government's Counter Disinformation Unit Falls Short On Curbing False Israel-Palestine Posts

MPs and journalists have been urged by the foreign secretary to be "careful" sharing information about the Israel-Gaza conflict (Alamy)

13 min read

Online disinformation surrounding the war between Israel and Hamas continues to spread far and wide across social media, raising serious questions over whether the UK government’s Counter Disinformation Unit is “fit for purpose".

The Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU) was set up by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in 2019 with the intention of focusing on deliberate disinformation. It began to focus on tackling the circulation of false health claims during the Covid-19 pandemic from 2020 onwards.

Now sitting with the newly created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), the unit monitors publicly available online information, and states it can take action by posting rebuttals to false claims, raising campaigns to "promote the facts", and working with social media companies to encourage them to promote reliable sources of information.

The online fact sheet for the unit, updated in June this year, states it is “currently focused on disinformation related to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and has already countered Russian disinformation about Ukraine including denials of mass casualty events”.

But it remains unclear what further measures the unit has introduced to specifically tackle the vast amount of online disinformation circulating about the violent conflict between Israel and Hamas.

A DSIT source told PoliticsHome they “can’t be sure at this stage” whether the unit will start to specifically focus on tackling disinformation relating to the conflict in the Middle East as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine. 

“[We] can't say for sure at this stage but its purpose is to understand disinformation narratives and attempts to artificially manipulate the information environment in the UK,” they said.

“This will take many forms, not specifically for any particular event. We're committed to supporting the people of Israel.”

Terrorist organisation Hamas launched a series of surprise attacks on Israel on 7 October, which resulted in the deaths of at least 1,300 Israeli civilians, while hundreds of hostages were taken. Israel has since retaliated with air strikes on the Gaza strip, killing at least 2,700 people so far and prompting concerns of a possible humanitarian crisis in the region as citizens’ access to water and supplies has been severely limited.

On Tuesday, the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza was hit by an explosion that reportedly killed hundreds of people, including staff, patients and civilians. The incident has since led to a fallout over who was to blame for the explosion, with Israel claiming the explosion was caused by a misfired projectile from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group, while Palestinian officials say Israel was responsible for a targeted attack. 

Since the outbreak of violence, a deluge of false images and videos have been shared across social media platforms, including falsified eyewitness accounts posted by fake profiles, and photographs of alleged victims of the current crisis that were actually taken during previous conflicts in other countries.

Social media company responsibility 

A senior source formerly involved in the leadership of the CDU told PoliticsHome that the unit only flags "worrying" content to social media companies themselves, but it is then the responsibility of them to act upon the warnings. 

"[The platforms] are much better at monitoring their own networks than the government is," they said.

"The government is not prescriptive, it's flagging what the concern is and then saying to the private companies, go away on this."

They described the unit as "part of a landscape" of ensuring British internet users see accurate information online and understanding when sources are "deeply questionable".

"The unit is a relatively small part of that; the main players in this are the social media networks themselves, who have a real vested interest in making sure that their sites point to trusted information," they said.

"X right now has a huge problem, that whether or not something is true, people kind of think that it's an absolute free-for-all because its standards are perceived to have got a lot lower."

Deluge of disinformation

The UK's counterterrorism commissioner, Robin Simcox, will warn in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute on Thursday that Hamas and Iranian networks operating in the UK pose a threat by spreading content that encourages extreme ideologies. According to fact-checking organisation Full Fact, the amount of disinformation and misinformation relating to the current conflict has become so vast it is difficult for platforms or fact-checkers themselves to keep track of. 

Alex Davies-Jones, the Labour MP for Pontypridd, has questioned the effectiveness of the unit and said that Labour had heard "very little" about its methods and output.

“Is it fit for purpose?” Davies-Jones said. 

“Currently, you're plugging the gaps with third sector organisations like Full Fact, or private entities like Logically AI, who are having to plug the gap for the government here in calling out this disinformation.”

The shadow minister added that Labour had been pressing the government for more information on what work the unit carries out in practice.

“Very little has been forthcoming from [the CDU], very little is known from it,” Davies-Jones continued. 

“And they should be tackling some of the issues that we're seeing, this was meant to be trying to counteract some of the really dangerous claims online.

“I want to see leadership [from government] on this in terms of reassuring communities, that they are trying to tackle the problem and also try to educate the public about what they're seeing online so that it is accurate and not falsified, and that they know where to go for trusted news organisations."

Calls for transparency

At a fringe event at Labour conference, Davies-Jones described the unit as having an "incredibly important job", but said that the "lack of transparency here is concerning", as she claimed the government had not been clear in establishing the role of the unit, especially in times of conflict.

The CDU has been mentioned 18 times in Parliament so far this year, according to Hansard, but the majority of the mentions have been from parliamentarians expressing concerns over freedom of speech as the unit had monitored the activities of politicians, journalists and campaigners. 

The government also set up a Rapid Response Unit in 2018 which helped government departments and the CDU to understand trends in social media by sharing information across departments. This unit was disbanded in 2022.

Pippa Allen-Kinross, the news and online editor for Full Fact, agreed with Davies-Jones that the government needed to do more to explicitly tackle online misinformation.

“Full Fact’s position is the level of misinformation that we are seeing is a result of a lack of effective proportionate policies to try and address the issue,” she told PoliticsHome.

“We've been quite vocal that there's too much power in the hands of internet companies when it comes to this.

“We think internet companies have a really important role to play in sort of labelling it and contextualising it and making sure people understand what the information really is.”

Online Safety Bill kicks in 

Speaking to the House of Commons on Wednesday in response to the explosion at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly stated his view that “pointing fingers” would only fuel the spread of misinformation and instability in the region and across the world.

“We need a firm grasp of what has happened, not a slew of social media commentary," he said. 

“We are carefully analysing the evidence that has been put in the public domain and other information and as soon as we have reached the definitive conclusion for ourselves, we will make that public.”

Cleverly added that government action is being taken to “ensure social media owners act with greater professionalism and greater consciousness”, referring to the Online Safety Bill, which is soon to reach Royal Assent in Parliament. 

The act will place duties on companies to take action against illegal content online, including misinformation and disinformation where it amounts to a criminal offence. Those who do not comply could face fines of the higher value of either £18m or 10 per cent of their global annual revenue.

Tech companies summoned

Michelle Donelan, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology,  met with leaders of the social media companies Google, Meta, X, TikTok and Snapchat last week to discuss “how these companies can and must do more to address the proliferation of Antisemitic, Islamophobic and extremely violent content following the appalling acts of terrorism in Israel”.

She asked them to “urgently” follow up with what action they would take. A DSIT source has confirmed to PoliticsHome that the firms have since sent documents to the government with their action points.

“We received back their documents about processes and are now going through them to see if there are any gaps which could be exploited by bad actors,” they said. “That work is ongoing.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are clear that social media platforms have a responsibility to tackle extremely violent content and disinformation, including such content following on from Hamas’ horrific acts of terrorism.

“We will continue to support platforms to tackle disinformation, antisemitism and extremely violent content.”

Many questions will remain for the platforms, particularly X – formerly Twitter – as one of the most popular platforms for the dissemination of news and information across the world. Since Elon Musk took over the platform last year, he proceeded to make widespread redundancies of content moderation teams, severely limiting the platform's capacity to remove false or harmful posts.

“[Misinformation] has definitely gotten worse [since the start of the Ukraine war]... because of the lack of moderation content moderators on a lot of these platforms,” Davies-Jones said.

The shadow minister insisted that technology could “have the answers” for tackling misinformation, but that the Online Safety Bill fails to fully hold them to account.

“There's huge swathes of a lack of anything to do with misinformation in the bill, as it stands anyway,” she said.

Davies-Jones said she met with the Community Security Trust, a charity to protect the Jewish community in the UK, on Tuesday, to discuss platforms that have been allowing harmful content that incites violence against Jewish communities.

“We've seen them [the platforms] deny any sort of culpability regarding the legislation," she said.

"They are openly advertising to their users how to get around the bill, so something needs to be done to tackle this, whether that is a new unit – which is something that the CST are calling for – to try and can't tackle and counter this, or take action against the companies.”

Broadcaster fallout

The BBC and the wider broadcast media have also faced criticism for potentially misleading reporting of the Israel-Gaza conflict.

High-profile Conservative politicians such as Cleverly and Defence Secretary Grant Shapps openly criticised the BBC for not referring to Hamas as "terrorists".

The BBC, however, has stated that using the word "terrorists" would be against its "founding principles" as an objective broadcaster. BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson wrote that "terrorism is a loaded word" and that the BBC would "hold the line" that if they used the term, they would be "abandoning our duty to stay objective".

The BBC has also been subject to criticism on social media for their reporting of the Gaza hospital explosion, after one post by BBC World News on X stated that "hundreds of people have been killed in an Israeli strike on a hospital in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials”.

One BBC correspondent also said live to camera on Tuesday evening: “It's hard to see what else this could be, really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli air strike, or several air strikes."

The claim by Palestinian officials that it was an Israeli airstrike has now been widely disputed: US President Joe Biden, who visited Israel on Wednesday, has backed Israel's account of the incident, telling Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that "based on what I've seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you".

In the Commons on Wednesday, multiple MPs called on the foreign secretary to state that broadcasters "should not enter into discursive debate", including any comment on where the responsibility lies for the hospital explosion.

Cleverly said that he believed that broadcasters such as the BBC was trying to “outpace those social media platforms” but should instead take “extra time to verify” information.

“The days of breaking news on those traditional platforms is long in the past,” he said.

“They should focus on accuracy, rather than pace because their words have impact here in UK and around the world.

“I restate my request of all people commenting on this whether their role is formally within the media or in the high profile positions, like members of this House, to be thoughtful of the implications of their actions, to be sceptical of all information coming out from Hamas. Taking a little bit of extra time to verify can literally save lives both here and abroad.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “Anyone watching, listening to or reading our coverage can see we have set out both sides’ competing claims about the attack, clearly showing who is saying them, and what we do or don’t know.”

Both Conservative and Labour MPs have also urged their colleagues to be cautious and verify information surrounding the conflict before commenting. 

The foreign secretary urged members to be “vigilant”: “Everybody, particularly those who have a voice in the public sphere, should be particularly careful of what information they disseminate, they should be particularly vigilant against disinformation and speculation is never useful.

“I would prefer of course, to be accurate, rather than just work at pace… there are malign influences seeking to take advantage of this terrible situation.”

Davies-Jones urged colleagues to “educate yourself” and said that MPs have a responsibility to avoid spreading misinformation as “leaders in our communities”.

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