Technology has taken the Cold War online
The manipulation of social media for political ends is posing an increasing threat to Western democracies
Fifty years ago, when the Cold War was in full swing, the easiest way for Moscow to sow the seeds of discord and disharmony among the Western democracies was to recruit and fund communist sympathisers who sought to destroy the political status quo. Trades union leaders, radical journalists, student activists, pro-communist politicians: anyone Moscow thought might be helpful in promoting instability was added to the small army of fellow travellers who believed communism was the answer to all the world’s ills.
The drawback to the Soviets’ master plan for world domination was that it was labour intensive, requiring thousands of agents on the ground to maintain their network. And then there was always the possibility that Russian spies and agents of influence might be exposed or, worse, turned into double agents.
The beauty, therefore, of the new form of information warfare being waged against the West by hostile states such as Russia is that it can achieve the same aims through the clever application of modern technology.
And what is really terrifying about this new propaganda war is how credible it can appear.
One of the more egregious examples of Moscow’s modern-day black arts was the photograph that went viral on the internet that appeared to show a Muslim woman nonchalantly walking past the bodies of victims of the Westminster Bridge terror attack in March as they lay prone in the street. It was an image that was guaranteed to stoke the fires of Islamophobia in the highly charged atmosphere immediately after the attack, and could easily have resulted in greater antipathy towards Muslims in Britain.
Now it transpires that the image was not, as originally thought, put online by a Texan tourist who happened to be in the vicinity. It was, in fact, posted by a Russian agent, all part of the Kremlin’s relentless campaign to promulgate social and political discord in Britain, as well as many other Western democracies. The man who actually took the picture said the woman was clearly “traumatised”.
The recent political turmoil in Catalonia is another occasion where officials say they have detected evidence of unwelcome Russian meddling. EU counter-propaganda experts based in Brussels say they identified an upsurge in pro-kremlin disinformation and false claims about the Catalan independence referendum, with incendiary headlines such as “World powers prepare for war in Europe” appearing in both Russian and Spanish.
This mounting evidence explains why Theresa May was so outspoken in her condemnation of Moscow’s tactics in her Mansion House speech this week. Mrs May pulled no punches in accusing the Russians of trying to “weaponise information” by meddling in elections and planting fake news stories with the sole aim of fomenting political instability among Western democracies.
Nor is this new form of cyberwarfare confined to the Russians. A report published by the Washingtonbased Freedom House think tank into the manipulation of social media for political ends has found that online disruption tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year. Among the worst affected was the US, where claims that Russian hackers helped Donald Trump to win last year’s presidential contest still echo around the White House.
To date, there is no direct evidence that the Russians have tried to influence the outcome of a democratic process in Britain, although the Electoral Commission is conducting an investigation into what role, if any, the Kremlin played in the 2016 Brexit referendum. But there can be little doubt that Moscow regards Britain as a prime target for its fake news campaign. The House of Commons media committee has begun an inquiry into whether Moscow has tried to interfere in British politics, and plans to hear evidence from representatives of both Twitter and Facebook.
So far as Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned, any fake news operation that destabilises the UK is good for Russia, as it weakens Britain’s role as a leading European power as well as undermining the effectiveness of the transatlantic alliance.
And even in the absence of conclusive proof of Russian meddling in Britain’s political affairs, there is still much we can do as a nation to protect ourselves against this new threat to our well-being. Both GCHQ, the Cheltenham-based communications centre, and the newly created National Cyber Security Centre need to be pro-active both in disrupting and exposing the fake news operations run by Russia and other hostile states. They also have the tools to inflict similar damage on our enemies if the need were to arise.
Our politicians must also be a lot less naive about allowing Russian propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik to operate freely from bases in the UK. Freedom of expression is all very well, but not when it seeks to undermine the very foundations of our democratic institutions.