The little-known story of MI6 Rogue is one of the more unusual to have emerged during the final countdown towards Brexit.
On 6 December, some weeks before a trade deal between the UK and EU was announced, ITV’s political editor Robert Peston reported on the government’s “reasonable worst-case scenario” for Brexit, leaked by an anonymous Twitter account named “MI6 ROGUE”, with the handle “@mi6rogue”.
The dossier, marked “official sensitive”, war-gamed the potentially cataclysmic results of a no-deal exit: mass protests, medicine shortages, illegal fishing, lorry queues, and a reduced capacity to respond to a terror attack. This was all broadcasted on Peston’s primetime slot, making the document spectacularly bad press for Boris Johnson’s government.
The account which leaked the document – and an associated news aggregator website called “mi6rogue.com” – boasts contacts within the UK government, deep links with the Secret Intelligence Service, and the finest in Tom Clancy-style graphics. “We take no pleasure in briefing against the UK government & are not aligned to any political party,” reads the website’s “About” section.
Since the Brexit trade agreement was announced on Christmas Eve, MI6 Rogue has released a spate of new content including a difficult-to-verify Kremlin document on the anti-government protests in Belarus, and, most recently, a trove of files relating to Facebook attributed to a whistleblower (Facebook has been contacted for comment).
The question is: how reliable a source is MI6 Rogue? How does any journalist wishing to cover the account’s leaks trust it?
From Peston’s perspective, whoever is behind the account is beside the point.
“I published the document only after government officials authenticated it for me,” Peston told me in an email in late December. “I would always seek corroboration of a document’s authenticity before publication, whoever the source may be. I trust authenticated documents rather than anonymous or even known sources.”
So-called “rogue” and “alt” government agency Twitter accounts were popularised in the early months of Donald Trump’s presidency. From @RogueNASA and the humble alt US Fish Wildlife Service (@AltUSFWSRefuge) all the way to @RoguePOTUSStaff, dozens of accounts emerged almost immediately after the 2016 election results, and continued to gain press attention into early 2017.
While some of the accounts were less believable than others, they acted mainly as a symbolic foil to Trump’s own Twitter presence.
MI6 Rogue has taken a different tack, releasing internal government documents and positioning itself as an amateur news service. The account joined Twitter in February 2020, and has more than 44,000 followers at the time of writing. MI6 Rogue churns out content at a lightning pace, sometimes posting at a rate of two original tweets an hour. Occasionally, these tweets feature political commentary, which tends to oscillate between anger, teasing, and haughty moralism.
On any given day the account might comment on the latest military technology, the death of Princess Diana (not an inside job, it contends), or local crime, as well as wheeling out files allegedly obtained from within the civil service.
The account has a mixed set of political coordinates: pro-Remain, pro-refugee, yet also pro-military, proposing a return of the National Service while raging against both technocratic government officials and the far right.
One page on its website features a list of the UK’s most-wanted criminals, complete with pictures and physical descriptions, while another lists a surprisingly far-reaching catalogue of official government websites.
The details and motives of MI6 Rogue are, as the name might suggest, highly secretive. When I contacted it through an email address provided on its website, the individual concerned agreed to answer questions via email, so long as their identity was kept concealed.
“It is hypocritical for someone who occasionally lies to people for Queen and country to comment on misinformation,” they tell me when asked about their crusade against government spin. “Still, I guess this makes me a professional liar, so who else would be qualified to answer such an important question?”
It is unclear what exactly MI6 Rogue lies about as part of their day job – the reference appears to be to espionage. But the implications are clear: who better to publicly monitor the cloak-and-dagger side of politics than someone who purports to carry out covert intelligence operations abroad?
Misinformation and the divisions it creates in British politics will not disappear with the Brexit trade agreement, and the impact of Brexit on political communication will be lasting, as a political moment shaped by strategic leaks, trailed policies and encrypted WhatsApp groups, and the paranoia and realpolitik they spawn.
[see also: Has Brexit killed British manufacturing?]
Until the Peston coverage, MI6 Rogue’s main press attention included its crime tweets featuring on local news sites and a No 10 leak covered by Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik. The online community of military enthusiasts that engage with the account, however, are passionate about its output.
The individual behind MI6 Rogue claims they decided to launch the account after becoming privy to a report from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) in late January or early February last year. “[T]o my horror the report detailed how a new coronavirus had the potential do devastate the UK,” they wrote.
After reading that report, they took a walk along Westminster Bridge, where they “watched a group of schoolchildren, excited, with their lives hardly began”.
Knowing the emotions, opinions and motives of an anonymous figure like MI6 Rogue only further muddies the role they play.
[see also: How AI changed cyber security]
MI6 Rogue’s account has also revealed the very real effects of policy. In late March, they wrote publicly about the sudden passing of their father due to Covid-19, advising their followers to take precautions.
“[H]e was as hard as nails, mid-70s & fit. He had mild symptoms & just deteriorated overnight,” read a tweet sent by the account.
Cybersecurity threats and the decline of the UK’s global influence also plays a part in MI6 Rogue’s pessimism. They have released what they claim to be the tax records of right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins, and post frequently about migrant issues.
“War can be a necessary evil. Still, the migration of people needs to be part of the conversation,” they told me.
For all the importance of the subjects that MI6 Rogue has attempted to raise, the account often ends up bristling at the absurdity of British politics. It has found itself at odds with the only other rogue UK government account on Twitter, @RogueWhitehall, which appeared around the same time as MI6 Rogue but provides mostly humorous commentary, rather than leaks, about the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former top aide Dominic Cummings, and about the Labour Party. MI6 Rogue has denounced Rogue Whitehall publicly, declaring that a far-left agitator is behind the alt civil service account and that any information it releases should not be trusted.
Since the Brexit transition period ended, the MI6 Rogue account has found its footing by proposing that, thanks to its claimed position on the inside, it can separate misinformation and fake news from the real threats that constantly surround us. While post-Brexit trade issues and the ongoing public health crisis are its main fodder, MI6 Rogue’s focus has moved pointedly towards digital security threats – perhaps a sign of its own concern about maintaining the veil of online anonymity.
The role for such anonymous sources in future may be less about what journalists like Peston cover publicly, and more about how that source can command its own audience from behind the veil.