UK information operations in the time of coronavirus

What roles are secretive British army units 77th Brigade and Specialist Group Military Intelligence playing in the UK government’s battle against coronavirus?

Defence chief General Sir Nick Carter speaks at a government press briefing during the coronavirus crisis, 22 April 2020 (Photo: 10 Downing Street)

At a Downing Street briefing in April, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab paid a lengthy tribute to the “amazing work” of the British army during the coronavirus pandemic. His praise was likely well-received by the individual standing two metres to his left – General Nick Carter, the UK’s most senior military officer, who appeared at the briefing for the first time. 

In a speech afterwards, General Carter outlined various ways in which the military was supporting the government and, crucially, noted that the highly secretive 77th Brigade was “helping to quash rumours from misinformation, but also counter disinformation”.

Carter did not elaborate, but two weeks later armed forces minister James Heappey – himself a former army officer – confirmed that the 77th Brigade was playing a key role in Whitehall’s battle against coronavirus. 

Among other things, the Brigade was said to be “supporting the government’s Rapid Response Unit in the Cabinet Office”– a body set up in 2018 “to identify and rebut disinformation and misinformation”, according to the government.

Little is known about the role or rationale of the British army’s 77th Brigade, which is based at Denison Barracks in Berkshire, southern England. In a 2018 speech, however, General Carter dubbed it an “information warfare” initiative, affording the military “the capability to compete in the war of narratives at the tactical level”.

Prior to Carter’s April speech, the government’s long-held position was that propaganda operations by the British military are never waged domestically. But less than a year after this was last publicly affirmed in August 2019, the policy has been avowedly reversed. 

This compromises the vital dividing line between military and civil power which has endured as long as British parliamentary democracy. But not a single voice in the mainstream, as far as we know, has mentioned this disturbing shift, much less questioned it.

Carter has some cause to know about the 77th Brigade. We can reveal that in 2012, he was appointed “Honorary Colonel Commandant” in the British army’s “Media Operations Group” – one of the four units which were merged to form the Brigade in 2015, which was called its ‘Number 5 Column’.

For reasons that are unclear, Carter’s official biography makes no mention of his tenure in the unit. In November 2019, he was succeeded in this role by Alexander Aiken, the executive director for government communications, the most senior spin doctor in Whitehall. Aiken’s position with the Brigade is, again, unmentioned in his official biography, although it does note he oversaw the creation of the Rapid Response Unit.

In a recently deleted article on the government’s website, Aiken acknowledged “alternative news sources” were one of the unit’s key targets, on the basis that such outlets were “biased” and focused on “sensationalism rather than facts”.

77 Brigade (Photo: UK Army)

Shaping behaviour

Some indications of the Brigade’s operations can be found in the media coverage of its launch in 2015. A Channel 4 article referred to “Twitter troops… shaping behaviours through the use of dynamic narratives” and the army was said to be specifically recruiting individuals with “journalism skills and familiarity with social media”.

There has been virtually no serious reporting on the Brigade since, although in 2018 the publication Wired was granted exclusive access to its Denison Barracks headquarters.

While a textbook example of ‘embedded journalism’, Wired’s article did highlight soldiers using advertising industry phrases such as “key influencers”, “reach” and “traction”, as well as a sign on the wall declaring “behavioural change is our USP [unique selling point]”.

“One room was focused on understanding audiences: the makeup, demographics and habits of the people they wanted to reach. Another was more analytical, focusing on creating ‘attitude and sentiment awareness’ from large sets of social media data”, the article continued. “Another was full of officers producing video and audio content. Elsewhere, teams of intelligence specialists were closely analysing how messages were being received and discussing how to make them more resonant.”

The 77th Brigade shrouds its activities in neutral language to describe its operations. While the 15th Psychological Operations Group was among the four units merged to form the Brigade, it does not publicly acknowledge that “psyops” form part of its remit.

Instead, the Brigade is said to employ “non-lethal engagement and legitimate non-military levers”, while the term “information warfare”, referenced by General Carter in 2018, is absent from its listing on the Ministry of Defence (MOD) website.

More forthcoming UK military doctrine is, however, regularly published by the MOD. A 2018 document updated in January 2020 reveals that “deception” is a core practice for the armed forces, stating “it’s critical we develop mindsets and capabilities that deny information to our adversaries – to degrade their understanding – … incorporating both passive and active measures”. 

Deception is defined as “measures designed to mislead adversaries” with information “used to create deception or as ‘camouflage and concealment’ to support deception”.

The document adds this can “range from encouraging the responsible use of social media by our own personnel through promoting and developing and continuous reinforcing of a security culture, to camouflage, concealment and deception techniques”.

The 77th Brigade has no admitted social media presence, but indications the unit is widely active on such networks were boosted in September 2019 when senior Twitter staffer Gordon MacMillan was exposed by Middle East Eye as a lieutenant in the Brigade. 

MacMillan’s promotion of puff pieces reporting on the Brigade’s creation, and interactions with its now-dormant Twitter account the next year, strongly suggest he has been involved with the unit – which seeks to weaponise the platform for which he works – for quite some time.

Twitter has made much of its commitment to ridding the platform of networks of “coordinated accounts” engaged in state-backed “information operations” and “platform manipulation”, and has conducted regular mass purges of such accounts since October 2018. However, not once have the purged users been based in the UK.

The (now deleted) LinkedIn page of Gordon MacMillan, a senior Twitter staffer who was exposed by Middle East Eye as a lieutenant in the 77th Brigade. (Screengrab / Middle East Eye)

‘Highly organised’

The 77th Brigade has been accused by a member of parliament of targeting the Scottish independence movement and its supporters. In 2019, Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Douglas Chapman repeatedly claimed on Twitter that the Brigade was “working against elected MPs and parties” in a “highly organised” manner, “attacking and undermining our democratic choices”. 

Chapman’s tweets prompted such a deluge of abuse from other users that he deleted some of the postings.

Opposition to Scottish independence is a viewpoint shared by some of the Brigade’s known members who serve as reservists in the unit. These include former Conservative MP and armed forces minister Mark Lancaster (the unit’s Deputy Commander) and current Conservative MP and chair of the House of Commons defence committee, Tobias Ellwood (a Lieutenant Colonel in the unit). 

Both Lancaster and Ellwood have voted consistently against all legislation transferring further powers of any kind to the Scottish parliament.

Also reported to be part of the Brigade is Kate Watson, Labour’s unsuccessful candidate for Glasgow East in the 2017 and 2019 general elections. She was formerly the operations director of Better Together, the principal “No” vote campaign group in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

The MOD website states the Brigade is involved in “collecting, creating and disseminating digital and wider media content”. Could this entail managing real, fake and automated social media accounts disseminating pro-government messages and discrediting those critical of Downing Street’s handling of the pandemic?

Apparent attempts to “game” social media platforms by using covert and fake social media accounts in these ways have been repeatedly documented in the UK in recent months. A significant example occurred in May when a brief statement adapted from a post on an obscure blog circulated far and wide on both Facebook and Twitter.

It read: “Journalism is missing the ‘mood’ in this great country of ours – the United Kingdom. We do not want or need blame. We do not want constant criticism of our Government who are doing their very best in a very difficult and unprecedented global emergency.”

This was shared without attribution by, among others, prominent businessman Sir Alan Sugar, although many users posting the message had only recently registered, or had little to no followers or ‘friends’ – key potential hallmarks of inauthenticity. Several users were subsequently “restricted” by Twitter due to “unusual activity”, meaning the accounts were either automated or suspected of being so – or run from the same IP address. 

It is not possible to connect the 77th Brigade with this potentially coordinated effort. However, academic Marc Owen Jones – who conducts detailed analysis of social media posts – told us that it is “plausible” the unit is “adapting legitimate content seeking to diminish blame directed at the government during the crisis”.

He explains: “It would certainly make sense to adopt, adapt, or appropriate legitimate sentiments expressed by real people that appear popular and boost them in order to ensure maximum reach.

“As that tweet was popular, and also sought to deflect blame from the government, it would be a prime choice to adapt for an information operation that had a veneer of authenticity. This way, whoever is amplifying this content can claim it was grassroots, as opposed to top down.”

In other words, even if this was not the 77th Brigade’s work, it is likely other content circulated during the pandemic has been. Given Twitter staffer Gordon MacMillan’s role in the unit, the weaponisation of the platform by the military is surely a matter for future investigations into Whitehall’s handling of the pandemic.

It may also be significant that in February this year, Whitehall convened a behavioural scientist collective, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Behaviour (SPI-B), to advise its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on how to, among other things, increase public adherence to social distancing measures.

One solution offered by the group was to increase the “perceived level of personal threat” among British citizens. One document states: “A substantial number of people still don’t feel sufficiently personally threatened… The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”

It went on to recommend that such messaging be circulated via “targeted media campaigns, social media, apps and websites”.

‘Civilian army’

The MOD is not a designated lead department for responding to emergencies such as pandemics. However, government policy since the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review – which placed military planners in key government ministries – has given the army a “wider and more formal role in supporting national resilience contingency planning”.

The then vice chief of the UK Defence Staff, General Sir Gordon Messenger, wrote in 2017: “Defence has a key role to play, supporting lead government departments, devolved administrations and civil authorities as they prepare for, respond to, and recover from disruptive challenges and major national events.”

He explained: “Defence is now no longer seen as the ‘last resort’ option; rather, it must now be ready and configured to play an early role in providing civil resilience.”

But more recent attempts to use the coronavirus pandemic in order to blur the distinction between military and civil power have surprisingly provoked no alarm. 

For example, SNP MP and defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald has proposed establishing a “national resilience force”, which he describes as “a civilian army that would be deployed at times of national crisis”.

Under the plans, which McDonald intends to have adopted as party policy, school leavers, graduates, retirees and those taking career breaks would be offered incentives to enlist. School leavers would receive a year’s training in responding to a range of crises.

In an interview with the Times, McDonald suggested the scheme could be further expanded post-independence or even adopted by the UK government on a “larger scale”. He also dismissed obvious comparisons with national military service, suggesting the scheme was merely a way of engaging citizens “to deliver the resilience needed to meet modern threats and challenges”. 

However, McDonald acknowledged his thinking was “heavily influenced” by the Modern Deterrence Project of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an influential think tank with close ties to the British defence establishment.

The proposal was greeted warmly in the New Statesman which noted that the project’s director, Elisabeth Braw, was liaising directly with McDonald on the issue. Braw called for all government agencies linked to national security, including the National Health Service, to be able to select 18-year-olds for training in a variety of disciplines.

Integrity and statecraft

Before joining RUSI, Braw was a “non-resident senior fellow” at NATO-connected think tank, the Atlantic Council. During this period, she also became involved with the Integrity Initiative, a covert Foreign Office-funded military intelligence operation. 

The extent of Braw’s relationship with the Integrity Initiative is unclear, but a leaked document dated 2018 indicates she was listed as one of 14 members of its North American “cluster” – a clandestine network of journalists, academics, and military and intelligence operatives maintained by the organisation to spread pro-Western propaganda and encourage more assertive government policies towards Russia.

Earlier this year, Braw was a panellist at an event convened by New Bletchley, a shadowy “network of thinkers, leaders, and stakeholders” co-founded by Paddy Nicoll, a former officer in the Black Watch army battalion and member of the Integrity Initiative’s UK cluster whose name appears in a number of its internal files.

Fellow speakers at the meeting, which was held in London’s Churchill War Rooms under the banner of ‘UK Defence Priorities’, included a host of current and former senior US and UK military veterans, among them 77th Brigade Lieutenant Colonel Tobias Ellwood. 

The need for the UK government to “find ways of building national resilience, especially in young people” was one of the panel’s “key findings”. Strikingly, in 2009 Ellwood authored a paper on “bridging the gap between military and civilian affairs on the modern battlefield”, indicating the lengthy history of these concerns in elite security circles. 

Despite Integrity Initiative files making clear the organisation is no friend of Scottish independence, that Stewart McDonald’s thinking has been guided by one of its cluster members is unsurprising. McDonald denies having any connection with the organisation, but his political adviser and close friend Neal Stewart has given secret briefings at the offices of its parent “charity”, the Institute for Statecraft. 

The Institute for Statecraft has proposed a number of plans to increase the armed forces’ role and presence in Britain, and instil a military ethos at every level of British society.

Scottish National Party MP and defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald. (Photo: UK Parliament)

One such clandestine endeavour, called CyberGuardian, was an information technology education initiative targeted at “initially 12-18-year-olds, but spreading to younger children as the programme evolves”. The project’s executive summary had clear echoes of McDonald’s “national resilience” plan, including similar phraseology.

CyberGuardian seemingly never came to pass, but other Institute for Statecraft militarisation endeavours have – and received Whitehall funding. In response to a parliamentary question in 2018, Tobias Ellwood, then a defence minister, confirmed that in 2016-18 the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust’s Local Grants Programme awarded £177,650 to 12 separate projects run by the organisation. 

One of the projects was called “Shared Outcomes”. Ellwood painted an idyllic picture of the endeavour, stating that its programmes “enable young people to take part in challenging activities such as assault courses, night navigation exercises and camping while visiting an Army base, and other activities designed to improve community cohesion”. 

However, a leaked Institute for Statecraft internal file authored by the organisation’s co-founder Dan Lafayeedney reveals that its real aims were “counter-radicalisation”, with a pernicious focus on a so-called “Muslim mindset”. 

He wrote: “We have a programme exploring the fundamental cause of radicalisation, i.e., the Muslim mindset and how we tackle that in our Muslim communities in the UK and elsewhere… We engage directly with the various UK Muslim communities, using adventurous training laid on by the Army to teach young people leadership, life skills, other skills and encouraging them to undertake the national Duke of Edinburgh Award challenge.”

Lafayeedney added: “This helps build trust and confidence in the communities and to integrate their young people into mainstream British society. But we… make no mention of deradicalisation… If it were badged counter-radicalisation, no one would participate in it [emphasis added].”

The same document shows that the Institute for Statecraft also played a role in the formation of the 77th Brigade.

Lafayeedney continued: “[We] help the Forces become more competent to fight modern war with all kinds of weapons and do so on the budget the state provides. To that end we’ve supported the creation of special Army reserve units – 77th Brigade and Specialist Group Military Intelligence – with which we now have a close, informal relationship [emphasis added]. 

“These bring in, as reservists with special status, individuals who are very senior civilian experts in some relevant area, such as hedge fund managers, senior bankers, heads of public affairs companies… people whom the Army could never afford to hire, but who donate their time and expertise as patriots.”

Specialist Group Military Intelligence

The Specialist Group Military Intelligence (SGMI) was founded the same year as the 77th Brigade and is also based at Denison Barracks in Berkshire.

But even less information on this unit is available than its neighbour at the base. It has not been mentioned in a single UK mainstream media article as of September 2020 and even lacks an official British army website listing. 

An MOD recruitment page for the SGMI, however, makes reference to it conducting “intelligence focused activity for not only military but also civil contingency operations”.

The ‘hacktivist’ collective, Anonymous, has published a list of over 50 alleged SGMI operatives, some who are full-time in the military, others who are reservists working day jobs in various sectors including banking, tech industry, lobbying, consulting, and secondary and university education.

The Institute for Statecraft’s co-director Chris Donnelly is an “honorary colonel” in the SGMI. Leaked recruitment slides shown to prospective SGMI operatives – who are allegedly selected and interviewed by Donnelly at his organisation’s offices – make frequent mention of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). This was the secret army created by Winston Churchill in July 1940 to carry out espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in Nazi-occupied Europe, and which also served as a “stay-behind military force in the event of a Nazi invasion of Britain.

Other leaked documents shed light on the “intelligence focused activity” of SGMI reservists. For instance, while serving as Global Head Market Structure & Execution Strategy at HSBC Global Asset Management (and also chair of the HSBC Military Network), Ian Cohen was a captain in the SGMI’s financial intelligence (‘FININT’) division. 

Files released by Anonymous indicate that Cohen’s role included advising the unit on optimal ways of identifying Russian state or corporate funding of UK organisations such as “a university with an anti-fracking agenda”. 

Cohen also wrote an extensive report on a Moscow Exchange Forum event in London he attended in December 2017, and personally hosted a conference at the Institute for Statecraft’s offices in January 2018 on “China’s strategy for achieving a competitive advantage over the West”.

We emailed Cohen, and his former employer HSBC, to ask whether this dual position led to other HSBC staff knowingly or unknowingly assisting him in his military intelligence responsibilities, or if the bank’s commercial activities were in any way influenced by the role. 

No reply was received from Cohen, and HSBC said he had now left the organisation, ignoring subsequent requests for clarification. 

A leaked recruitment slide shown to prospective Specialist Group Military Intelligence operatives.

There appears to be no clear distinction between an individual’s day job and their clandestine work in the SGMI or the 77th Brigade, an issue which is of particular concern given that the unit counts several educational professionals among its ranks. 

There is no publicly available information for school or university students, or their parents, on these appointments – or what the individuals teaching them do in their spare time. Neither is there information on whether their teaching activities, and those they teach, are part of their “intelligence focused” remit.

Given the veil of secrecy shrouding the SGMI, it is unclear what, if any, activities its operatives have engaged in during the coronavirus pandemic, but given the unit’s “civil contingency” responsibilities, its role warrants further investigation. After all, the armed forces have been central to Whitehall’s civil contingency planning in response to the pandemic from the start.

As the true scale of the British government’s disastrous response to Covid-19 becomes ever clearer, there will surely be mounting pressure to account for the catastrophic errors which cost so many lives, and to reveal what was said and done behind closed doors in Britain’s corridors of power.

Whether this takes the form of parliamentary investigations or a fully-fledged inquiry, it will be crucial to secure a full disclosure of the covert activities of the Cabinet Office’s Rapid Response Unit, the 77th Brigade, the SGMI and other state psychological warfare endeavours, to determine how Britain’s democratic spaces may have been subverted and citizens’ perceptions and actions influenced.

Many spheres of British civilian life, from primary school upwards, are increasingly becoming militarised, while many professions become weaponised. 

Citizens are more and more – in many cases without their knowledge or consent – engaged in some kind of warfare, furthering the state’s so-called “national security” interests.

The coronavirus pandemic may well have not only have made this troubling transformation more likely, it may have significantly sped up the process.

Ian Cohen, HSBC, Kate Watson and Elisabeth Braw were approached for comment. 


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