Well now that their secret is out, will it be as effective… if it was effective at all?
The UK government has embarked on a series of clandestine propaganda campaigns intended to bring about “attitudinal and behavioural change” among young British Muslims as part of a counter-radicalisation programme.
In a sign of mounting anxiety across Whitehall over the persuasiveness of Islamic State’s online propaganda, a secretive Home Office unit has developed a discreet multimillion pound counter-messaging operation that it says privately is running at “industrial pace and scale”.
However, the methods of the Research, Information and Communications Unit (Ricu), which often conceal the government’s role, will dismay some Muslims and may undermine confidence in the Prevent counter-radicalisation programme, which already faces widespread criticism.
One Ricu initiative, which advertises itself as a campaign providing advice on how to raise funds for Syrian refugees, has had face-to-face conversations with thousands of students at university freshers’ fairs without any students realising they were engaging with a government programme.
That campaign, called Help for Syria, has distributed leaflets to 760,000 homes without the recipients realising they were government communications.
Much of Ricu’s work is outsourced to a London communications company, Breakthrough Media Network, which has produced dozens of websites, leaflets, videos, films, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and online radio content, with titles such as The Truth about Isis and Help for Syria.
Breakthrough also organises events at schools and universities and works closely with a number of grassroots Muslim organisations to disseminate messages and campaigns challenging extremism that the company has developed as part of its Ricu contract.
Breakthrough also helped form a PR company that promoted the work of the grassroots organisations to journalists.
The community groups said their relationship with Ricu helps them get their own messages to a wider audience, and that they retain editorial control over counter-radicalisation communications.
However, a series of Ricu and Breakthrough documents seen by the Guardian show that Ricu privately says it is the one retaining editorial control, including over the products produced as part of these partnerships.
In one document, Breakthrough suggests that while the community groups are consulted at several stages of the project, final approval should be Ricu’s.
A former Breakthrough employee said communications campaigns were designed according to objectives set by Ricu, and that the government closely oversaw the progress of products and had final signoff.
The messages are targeted at “Prevent audiences”, which are defined as British Muslims, particularly males, aged 15 to 39.
The Home Office is highly defensive of Ricu’s work. One senior official acknowledged the unit was engaged in propaganda campaigns but said: “All we’re trying to do is stop people becoming suicide bombers.”
Westminster’s intelligence and security committee, which oversees Ricu, says it believes the unit’s work is an important element of the Prevent strategy. Andrew Stunell, a former Liberal Democrat minister who was involved in drawing up counter-extremism policies in the coalition government, said he believed it to be “sound and reasonable” to support community groups that were promoting moderation, and that he was neutral on the question of whether government involvement should be acknowledged.
Several other former government ministers familiar with Ricu’s work insisted it was an essential component of the government’s efforts to counter Isis propaganda. They declined to be identified, however, with one saying this was because the work was classified.
One former minister said it would be “naive” to suggest the government could openly communicate its counter-radicalisation messages. But another, who is broadly supportive of Ricu, said he believed the deception involved in the dissemination of the messages could damage trust between the government and Muslim citizens.
Critics of Ricu’s behavioural change programme say they fear it could cause serious damage to the relationship between the government and Muslims.
Imran Khan, the human rights lawyer who represented the family of murdered London teenager Stephen Lawrence, said: “If the government wants its Muslim citizens to listen to it, it needs to be trusted. And to be trusted, it needs to be honest. What is happening here is not honest, it’s deeply deceptive.