Tech­nol­ogy has taken the Cold War on­line

The ma­nip­u­la­tion of so­cial me­dia for po­lit­i­cal ends is pos­ing an in­creas­ing threat to Western democ­ra­cies

The Daily Telegraph - - Letters To The Editor - CON COUGH­LIN FOL­LOW Con Cough­lin on Twit­ter @con­cough­lin; READ MORE at tele­­ion

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.

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