Here at mySociety, before pressing ‘post’, we sometimes pass the wording of a tweet or blog entry past a couple of colleagues, just to make sure it strikes the right tone.
So when we saw emails from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Cabinet Office’s ‘Rapid Response unit’ going back and forth to get the wording of a tweet absolutely correct, we sympathised.
“The quote would need to be shrunk down to fit, what should the main focus be?”
“Have added some bits, not sure what the highlighted section was meant to be?”
“[Redacted] wants us to delete the tweet for relationship management purposes and replace with the below.”
“I’ll check at this end, but isn’t doing that just going to reignite?”
“It could potentially reignite it, yes. But the Mail Online did not approach us for a comment and their headline is very misleading so feel we should rebut with less confrontational language.”
“But you can’t replace a tweet? You can only delete and then go back on the original article with a new comment, so you’re rebutting twice, only the second time around admitting that you went too hard first time? Which just creates another story. Isn’t it better to just leave it?”
Admittedly the DHSC’s predicament was higher stakes than ours generally is — they were responding to a piece in the Mail Online and tackling disinformation about coronavirus statistics. The email that kicks off all this discussion reads:
“Flagging growing engagement with a Daily Mail article claiming that Covid-19 statistics around fatalities and hospitalisation have been twisted to create fear among the public (6.6k interactions).
“Although not very high engagement, the article has now been picked up by several high profile lockdown sceptics such as Simon Dolan and Adam Books.
“Given these damaging claims could affect compliance, we recommend that the press office contact the Daily Mail to make them aware of the public health impact, and if possible, include a government line in the article.”
For those who work in communications, and perhaps everyone else too, it is quite interesting to see the authority’s rebuttal process roll into action, with each statement requiring sign-off by a named person, presumably for accountability purposes (these names have, though, been redacted before release).
Available thanks to FOI
How did we come to see these internal memos? Because a WhatDoTheyKnow user requested them under the Freedom of Information Act.
We can’t know this user’s intent*: were they hoping to reveal evidence that there is indeed a governmental coverup over lockdown, or perhaps to argue the case that there is none? Either way, it seems pretty clear from the released email threads that if there is a conspiracy at play, the staff frantically scrambling to get the right message out to the public don’t know about it.
This request is also notable because the user, spotting that the authority had not provided everything they had asked for, requested an internal review, as is anyone’s right if they believe their FOI request has not been handled correctly.
To DHSC’s credit, they did go on to provide the missing data, and also went out of their way to give some background information “outside of the scope of the FOI Act, and on a discretionary basis”.
It’s worth noting that, for all the effort put in by DHSC’s communications team, however, Mail Online does not appear to have amended the article.
FOI as fact-checker
As we’re in the midst of a fast-changing pandemic situation, it’s perhaps inevitable that there’s lots of misinformation and confusion flying around at the moment — and thanks to social media, it spreads fast.
Freedom of Information requests can play one small part in countering ‘fake news’, by bringing background information into the public domain, helping us understand the full picture a bit better.
Is it always useful for such data to be public? That’s a matter for debate, and a question that is baked into the ICO’s FOI guidance for authorities.
We’ve been doing some in-depth work around exemptions recently, so it is interesting to see COVID-related requests like this one about ill-effects of vaccines in the light of Section 22 exemptions, which cover ‘information intended for future publication and research information’. We suspect a Section 22 exemption may be applied here.
That request is for Adverse Drug Reaction (ADR) data, and includes the instruction, ‘This information should be made available now as raw data, not held back to be accompanied by any analysis.’
Would that be desirable, or is the release of raw data just opening the door wide for potential misinterpretation and the drawing of erroneous conclusions?
When applying a Section 22 exemption, the ICO says that the authority must perform a public interest test to assess whether there is more public good in releasing the requested information than there would be in withholding it.
Their guidance specifically notes that “In most instances public authorities will not be able to argue that information is too technical, complex or misleading to disclose, or that it may be misunderstood or is incomplete, because they can explain it or set it into context.”
And so, the ideal scenario is that the data is released, with robust explanations and in a way that can be understood by all. That would be a great outcome made possible by FOI**.
* UPDATE: The request-maker has now added an annotation which explains their intent.
** UPDATE: Vaccine adverse reaction data is available, with context, on the GOV.uk website.
Image: Garry Butterfield