Disinformation: a lesson from America

This article was written by Damian and published in the Herald group of papers on the 30th July:

"The long-awaited Russia Report from the Intelligence and Security Committee assesses that Russian interference is part of a “new normal”.  There is nothing new about either fake news or Russian disinformation – what is new is its intensity, form and reach. 

While there are still ‘traditional’ influence operations and attempts at the mass manipulation of opinion, a common technique these days is not about a clear message at all.  Rather it is the sowing of confusion, planting deliberately conflicting messages, trying to undermine trust in established sources of news and information.  

Both sorts target those who are most likely to be receptive to their message, exploiting the social media ‘echo-chamber’ effect.   While you can see this evident in our country, the bigger-scale warning is, as often, from America. 

In American politics in particular, Russian agencies are implicated in interference in elections – on both sides!  Yes, there is clear evidence of the same agencies campaigning for both the Democrats and the Republicans – which looks peculiar at first. 

But the point is not that they want this or that party to win.  The point is that they want to make divisions wider.  So, Facebook and Twitter will be seeded with posts generating ever greater outrage.  There are even examples of real-world demonstrations happening on the back of fabricated online campaigns. 

The art is sophisticated and dark – it spreads at speed, leaving little or no footprint. In our recent select committee inquiry we concluded that it was difficult to be precise about the exact origin of a lot of posts.  But we do know that the volume of foreign interference is significant. 

And as we develop more tools to fight the threat, we are likely to see an information-warfare arms race. It may not always be about having the biggest army of hackers and online wizards, but we need to play smart and intelligently if we are to keep pace.  What we cannot and will not do is simply ‘return fire’ in kind. 

It is not just Russia that is involved. Jihadist extremists, Iran and China are also active, with social media platforms continuing to remove hundreds of rogue accounts with links to these states.    

The ISC report said the "clearest requirement for immediate action" is for new laws to give the UK's intelligence community "the tools it needs and be put in the best possible position if it is to tackle this very capable adversary".  

And it is certainly true that there is a job for Government in ensuring we have the right capacity to fight the threat, but there is also a job for social media platforms to do more.   

It is estimated that in the 2016 US presidential election, two thirds of the electorate directly or indirectly received posts originating from Russia’s ‘Internet Research Agency’.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Two thirds. 

Ultimately, we all need to understand how this works, because we are all potentially on the frontline.  When I say “this” I don’t mean we must all know how the Russian agency plants its content.  But we do need to know that that same content might end up with us, with no (no pun intended) red flag to identify it."