The silencing of dissent

The Government’s methods become increasingly authoritarian

Since the advent of the covid era in early 2020, Western liberal democracies have witnessed a marked acceleration in the systematic deployment of methods of non-consensual persuasion aimed at ensuring that people act and speak in ways that correspond to the dominant state-determined narrative. Throughout this period, everyone – politicians, academics, journalists, scientists and ordinary citizens – have been exposed to some combination of psychological manipulation, censorship, smearing and coercion (see here for an overview). Disturbingly, two recent events suggest that the methods used by our government and other powerful actors to crush dissent are becoming more flagrant.

Last month, the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch published a document titled Ministry of Truth: the secret government unit spying on our speech. The report confirmed what many of us had long suspected: some of our day-to-day talk and behaviour is being covertly monitored by our own Government for any signs of deviation from their version of the ‘truth’. If the confirmation of such Orwellian activities was not alarming enough, what was arguably more striking was the scale of this state-funded enterprise. Dedicated clandestine units are embedded within a range of government departments, including: the Cabinet Office (‘Rapid Response Unit’); Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (‘Counter Disinformation Unit’); Foreign Office (‘Government Information Cell’); Home Office (‘Research, Intelligence & Communications Unit); and the Ministry of Defence (‘77th Brigade). Clearly, law-abiding citizens that say or do something that deviates from the official government line (on covid, climate change, or the war in Ukraine) risk being clocked and silenced.

Within this state-funded infrastructure to crush free speech, the activities of the ‘Counter Disinformation Unit’ (CDU) evoke particular concerns. Despite being based in the government department responsible for the processing of Freedom of Information requests, the CDU was, paradoxically, the least forthcoming with answers to transparency questions posed by Big Brother Watch. The primary aim of the CDU is to ‘monitor covid disinformation’ and to signal potentially problematic material to social media companies. The Government, via the CDU, holds “Trusted Flagger” status with social media companies while — somewhat disingenuously — claiming not to mandate platforms to remove content. This special relationship results in government concerns being more visible to platforms such as YouTube and therefore more likely to be actioned; an arm’s length mechanism for habitual state censorship.

The Big Brother Watch investigation found that the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport had spent over £1 million pounds on outsourcing private companies to conduct this monitoring of social media outlets. Indeed, as described in a previous article, in summer 2021 HART itself was the victim of this dubious practice when – following an illegal hack – a commercial enterprise called ‘Logically AI’ attempted to undermine us by publicising out-of-context quotes from our informal chat logs. It was galling to discover that the UK Government was spending swathes of taxpayers’ money to monitor and smear a group of academics who were giving their time voluntarily to engage in the perfectly lawful activity of challenging some aspects of covid policy and questioning the dominant covid narrative.  

The second recent event that suggests that government methods for silencing dissent are becoming increasingly dictatorial concerns an interview Andrew Bridgen MP did with Dominique Samuels (a political commentator). The backbench Conservative, the only parliamentarian to openly express concerns about the safety of the covid vaccines, had already been suspended from the party and smeared as being ‘antisemitic’ and part of an ‘anti-vax conspiracy’ for stating that a Jewish consultant cardiologist had told him that the vaccine rollout had been ‘the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust’. In the interview with Samuels, Bridgen reveals a couple of other consequences he has endured for daring to criticise the dominant narrative.

Bridgen – the democratically elected MP for North West Leicestershire – describes how he was contacted by the ‘welfare’ office at the Houses of Parliament and told that ‘a number of people had come to us to say that you were suicidal, Andrew’. He reassures Samuels that there is absolutely no basis to these concerns. Later in the interview Bridgen also discloses that, around January 2022 (in the aftermath of him submitting a letter of ‘no confidence’ in the serving Prime Minister, Boris Johnson), an advisor from number 10 messaged him to say ‘what do you want … back off and you can have anything you want’. Bridgen says he has taken screenshots of the pertinent messages to support his conclusion that ‘they tried to buy me’.

And – according to Bridgen – these attempts to silence and undermine critics of the government narrative have been effective in discouraging his parliamentary colleagues from publicly sharing their concerns about the safety of the covid vaccines. Apparently, some political colleagues support his views, but ‘there is a lot of fear, and a lot of favour’ and ‘what’s been done publicly to me … has been done to scare others’. The result is that his private political supporters are ‘sitting this one out’.

If Bridgen’s testimony is accurate (and it is difficult to find a reason to doubt its veracity) it seems that the state may have added two more weapons to its censorial armoury: spurious accusations of mental instability and blatant bribery. On top of the plethora of dissent-crushing strategies that we already knew about, these latest revelations are deeply troubling. It seems that our purportedly liberal democracy may have sunk deeper into the authoritarian abyss than we initially suspected.

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