Cameron's covert propaganda campaign should alarm us all

Cameron's covert propaganda campaign should alarm us all
Comment: While its messages may be worthy, the government is using fundamentally dishonest methods of communication, amounting to an encroachment of state power in the third sector, writes Hilary Aked
4 min read
09 Jun, 2016
The #notanotherbrother campaign discourages people from join the fight in Syria [YouTube]

A little-known British government department called the Research Information and Communication Unit (RICU) has been co-ordinating the spread of "counter-narratives" to challenge "extremist" messages like those of Islamic State group (IS), it emerged last month.

Such work could arguably be seen as entirely legitimate, perhaps even vital. But is it justified for governments to secretly use supposedly independent civil society groups as a mouthpiece?

This question must be asked in light of the revelations that RICU has been operating a covert propaganda campaign targeting UK Muslims online, according to search terms entered and demographic data.

Ostensibly "grassroots" Muslims organisations, seen as credible messengers, have been chosen to disseminate these narratives - because spin doctors believed the PR would have little impact if it was seen to be coming from government.

According to a sarcastically titled CAGE report on the issue, We Are Completely Independent, some of the organisations implicated include Faith Associates, Families Against Stress and Trauma and the well-known Quilliam Foundation.

The latter's #NotAnotherBrother video is an example of a campaign produced with the help of staff from a communications agency called Breakthrough Media Network. This organisation is absolutely critical; it seems the government has outsourced much of this type of work to them. Director of the Quilliam Foundation, Haras Rafiq, has however denied any direct or indirect dealings with RICU over the campaign.

While the message of the film - encouraging people not to join IS - may be an entirely legitimate one, viewers are not informed of the government's role in funding the video or crafting its message.

Yet more troubling is the fact that some groups seem to have been unwitting partners in this public relations drive. CAGE authors Ben Hayes and Asim Qureshi conducted interviews with former employees of a group called Help for Syria who claim they were approached and offered assistance with media work by Breakthrough Media staff.

But is it justified for governments to secretly use supposedly independent civil society groups as a mouthpiece?

They were not informed where the money was coming from, but grew suspicious when the message "don’t go to Syria" was inserted into all the outputs that Breakthrough helped to produce, before the line "donate now". They quite reasonably felt that this distracted from the main message they wanted to convey: that Syrians urgently need humanitarian aid.

Once more, the government's aim - encouraging people to remain in the UK and give to registered charities rather than travelling to Syria themselves - is not necessarily problematic. But the method used to communicate it is fundamentally dishonest.

Such an approach to engaging with Muslim organisations - and the public in general - is ultimately counter-productive. If the aim was to reduce alienation and build a sense of trust and belonging, secretly co-opting civil society groups is the worst possible way to go about it.

Did the government think these practices would remain secret forever? Before employing these covert techniques, it should have anticipated that they would, inevitably, find their way into the public domain.

The result, which has now come about, is that both the credibility of its own messages has been damaged and the standing of the groups who partnered (knowingly or not) with government is at risk.

Of course, seeking to "covertly engineer the thoughts of its citizens" by using civil society groups as "sock puppets" is not all the government has been doing. The other side of the coin has been an effort to monitor, surveil and gather intelligence on people suspected of being susceptible to "radicalisation" (again, mostly Muslims) though they may never have broken any laws.

Less than transparent - sometimes even deceptive - practices permeate many aspects of the government's attempts to counter extremism

The use of undercover police and paid informants as part of this effort demonstrates that less than transparent - sometimes even deceptive - practices permeate many aspects of the government's attempts to counter extremism.

As well asking questions about the line between security and civil liberties, we should also be deeply alarmed about the government's covert propaganda campaign. It represents the encroachment of state power into the sphere of civil society, which ought to remain robustly independent.

If this insidious practice is allowed to happen in one policy area - on the basis of the "unprecedented threat" we are often told that we face - it could easily become more widespread. Letting the government use third parties to pull strings in the third sector is a very slippery slope.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.