A HUGE campaign which portrayed itself as independent advice on how to raise funds for Syrian refugees has been unmasked as a clandestine propaganda programme directed by the British government.
The Help for Syria initiative saw leaflets distributed to close to one million homes across the UK, with the recipients having no idea that the message was orchestrated by a secretive government entity dedicated to countering extremist propaganda from Islamic radicals.
Overseen by Westminster’s intelligence and security committee, the Research, Information and Communications Unit (Ricu) was formed with the explicit remit of tackling online propaganda from Daesh, as the terrorist outfit seeks to radicalise vulnerable young Britons.
In this sense Ricu is a key component of the government’s wider Prevent strategy, which is subtly aimed at potential recruits, especially Muslim males aged between 15 and 40.
The unit, which uses Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, as well as feeding stories to national media outlets, describes its role as “strategic communications,” which is defined as “the systematic and coordinated use of all means of communication to deliver UK national security objectives by influencing the attitudes and behaviours of individuals, groups and states.”
A modern team suited to 21st century propaganda is composed of the usual suspects of counter-terrorism experts, psychologists and linguists, but also includes digital media wizards, marketing consultants and film-directors in a bid to outdo Daesh’s powerful audio-visual messages.
Central to Ricu’s role is an analysis of online chat groups among communities and groups identified as vulnerable to extremism and attempting to discreetly shift the narratives to dissuade people from going to Syria.
A senior official from the Home Office has defended the scope of the propaganda campaign, said to be of an “industrial pace and scale,” as simply trying “to stop people becoming suicide bombers,” but the sheer scale of the offensive and its objective results have invited intense criticism.
Now that the curtain has slipped there are concerns that the Prevent campaign could strengthen a growing disillusionment with the government, among many targeted communities who may now feel that the authorities both mistrust and manipulate them.
Human rights lawyer, Imran Khan, has argued: “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.
“Furthermore, this government needs to stop thinking of young British Muslims as some sort of fifth column that it needs to deal with.”
Others have questioned whether the campaign has actually worked, pointing to the numerous British citizens who have participated in atrocities in Syria, while demanding concrete analysis of where exactly the programme has succeeded.