The glitzy, youthful ‘news company’ warns about fake news – but is part of the Home Office’s Prevent strategy
This Is Woke shares on its Instagram feed memes aimed at a youthful audience (Screenshots)
A social media network for young people, launched around the term “woke”, is actually a covert British government counterterrorism programme, security officials have admitted.
A Facebook page and Instagram feed with the name This Is Woke describes itself as the work of a “media/news company” that is engaging “in critical discussions around Muslim identity, tradition and reform”. In fact, it was created by a media company on behalf of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) at the UK Home Office.
But the OSCT is refusing to disclose information about the network and will not say why it was created, saying that to do so would “prejudice the national security of the UK”.
This Is Woke draws upon the popular expression “stay woke”, a call – originally African-American – to remain aware of social and racial justice issues. Launched earlier this year, the network features videos with titles such as “A trillion-ton iceberg has broken off Antarctica” and “Millions of pangolins are hunted each year”.
Alongside them are other videos with titles such as “It’s time to hold extremism to account for terrorism, not Islam”. This video went viral and has now been viewed 1.7m times.
The site also features short panel discussions, with four young people sitting on a sofa debating subjects such as “Will we all become vegan?” and “Are dating apps the way forward?”. Interspersed among these are videos with titles such as “What does wearing a hijab mean to you?”
One discussion video on This Is Woke’s Facebook page is called “What is fake news?” The four young participants offer contributions such as “online, we can never know who the source is” and “we have to train ourselves against what’s going on out there”. They are then filmed on the street, asking members of the public: “How do you know the news you hear is real?”
The This Is Woke Instagram feed includes quotations from Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and one from Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Islamic caliph – “sometimes the people with the worst past, create the best future”. There are also photographs of smiling women in hijabs.
‘National security concerns’
The content for the Facebook page and Instagram feed was created for the OSCT by Breakthrough Media, a London-based communications company, several people with knowledge of the project have confirmed to MEE.
When Middle East Eye asked the Home Office for information about the project, under the terms of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, the OSCT confirmed that it held such material. But it refused to disclose any, citing the section of the act that concerns national security.
While acknowledging that there was a public interest in transparency surrounding such projects, the OSCT said that national security concerns were “of overriding importance”.
Disclosure of information about This Is Woke, the OSCT said, “would open up detailed information about organisations and individuals who are engaged in the delivery of, and who are supporting activities to prevent terrorism. This includes activity to disrupt those who promote terrorism, and protect individuals who are vulnerable to recruitment, or who have already been recruited by extremists.”
As a consequence, disclosure of any information about This Is Woke under the Freedom of Information Act would “undermine the effectiveness of the Home Office strategies, and hence weaken and prejudice the national security of the UK”. The OSCT also cited commercial confidentiality. MEE is appealing the refusal.
As well as refusing the request made under the Freedom of Information Act, the Home Office declined to answer a number of questions about This Is Woke, including queries about the project’s objectives and methods, and the deception involved. Nor would it respond to a suggestion that the site could be accused of generating a form of “fake news”.
Instead, the Home Office said: “We are committed to using all of the tools available to counter the threat from terrorism in the UK. The Home Office works in partnership with a range of organisations from across civil society, industry, private and public sectors to reduce vulnerabilities to organised criminal, extremist and terrorist threats in the UK.”
This Is Woke is part of Prevent, the UK’s controversial counter-radicalisation programme, which in turn is one of the four main strands of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy.
As part of this programme, a secretive unit within the OSCT called the Research Information and Communications Unit (RICU) has been mounting covert propaganda campaigns for several years.
After an overhaul of Prevent in 2011, Theresa May, then the UK’s home secretary, told a parliamentary committee which provides some oversight of the OSCT that RICU was “road-testing some quite innovative approaches to counter-ideological messages”.
This Is Woke is part of Prevent, the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, which is especially aimed at male Muslims aged 15 to 39 (AFP)
Internal RICU documents seen by MEE show that these messages are intended “to effect behavioural and attitudinal change” among what the unit terms “Prevent audiences”. These are defined as British Muslims, particularly males, aged 15 to 39.
Meanwhile, Breakthrough Media – which has in the past been RICU’s favoured private-sector contractor – says privately, in internal papers, that its work on behalf of the unit is intended to “promote a reconciled British Muslim identity”.
Breakthrough recently changed its name to Zinc Network, a move that started in Australia, where the company had been caught persuading Muslims and a Christian clergyman to promote Australian government policies, without explicitly informing these individuals that it was working for the government.
Zinc Network also refused to answer questions about the project and the deception involved. In a statement, the company said: “Zinc Network is enormously proud of the work we undertake for our clients. Providing support to communities, brands and governments to promote positive social change and tackle some of the most complex issues in the world today is the driving force of our agency.”
‘An industrial scale and pace’
This Is Woke is just a small part of the material that is being produced in the UK under the direction of RICU. In other internal documents, seen by MEE, the unit says that it is working “at an industrial scale and pace”.
Past projects include a website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and leafleting campaign for Help For Syria, which appears to be a charitable venture but was in fact a “strategic communications platform” intended to influence conversations among young British Muslims and reduce any desire to travel to Syria.
Former Home Office officials say that RICU has also worked to influence the arts in the UK. Government lawyers have moved to block the disclosure of material that would show the role it has played in the production of supposedly independent radio shows.
As well as producing campaigns directed at Muslims in the UK, Breakthrough/Zinc has helped RICU with projects aimed at Muslims in France, Belgium, North Africa and the Middle East, Kenya, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Earlier this year, MEE reported that techniques developed through the Prevent programme have been deployed more widely to influence the UK population, especially following terrorist incidents, using social media campaignsdevised in advance of such attacks.
The panel participants seen in the This Is Woke Facebook video discussions are identified only by their first names. It is unclear how much they were told about the underlying purpose of the project.
Asad Dhunna told MEE, said that when he was asked by Breakthrough Media to take part, he was told that the company had a number of government contracts. But, Dhunna said, he was not explicitly told that This Is Woke was part of the Prevent programme.
Dhunna, a marketing consultant, said: “If I had known that, I would have approached it differently. I would have asked a lot more questions.”
‘We certainly weren’t told that it was anything to do with the Prevent programme’
– Elif Kalin, video participant
The women who were interviewed for the video “What does wearing a hijab mean to you?” said that they were approached on the campus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London, and asked whether they would participate in a film marking International Women’s Day.
“That’s what the team from Breakthrough said,” said Elif Kalin, who was one of the participants. “We certainly weren’t told that it was anything to do with the Prevent programme.”
Prevent has proved to be one of UK’s most polarising programmes. Some in police and government insist it is a vital counter-terrorism tool that safeguards vulnerable individuals. But critics argue that it is intrusive, discriminates against Muslims and encourages the state to search for threats where they do not exist.
A number of people who have been involved in the delivery of RICU’s propaganda projects have privately told MEE that they have serious misgivings about the work that they have done.
Earlier this month Neil Basu, an assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard and the UK’s most senior counterterrorism police officer, appeared to suggest that both supporters and critics of Prevent had a point. In an interview, Basu said that the programme was a vital part of the country’s counterterrorism strategy, but that it had been “badly handled” and should be more transparent.
The Home Office declined to comment directly on Basu’s criticism, In a statement to MEE it said: “The Prevent programme continues to play a vital role in this fight against radicalisation and has had a significant impact in stopping people being drawn into terrorism.”