The free world should never stop questioning, reporting and fighting the rising tide of online propaganda, says David Omand, former director of GCHQ
Friday 9 June 2017
Russian information operations are exercises in perception management, designed to create a new reality.
This creates three kinds of harm to free societies – subversion of our institutions, propaganda and disinformation – that the UK must find ways of managing.
These three elements may overlap, but the political, legal and ethical issues involved in responding to them are distinct – as our remedies should be. Technical fixes are needed, but at the heart of the matter is a strengthening of the roots of liberal education. Not all arguments are equal: explanations have to be consistent with the available facts. The hypothesis with the least evidence against it is to be preferred. Our civilisation and security are characterised by this type of debate. We allow rationality to be undermined at our peril.
As described earlier in this package, the first type of harm comes from Russian subversion: covert “active measures” designed to undermine confidence in our institutions and to influence our decisions in favour of Russian agendas. There is nothing new in this. From the birth of the Soviet Union, agitprop was integral to its foreign policy. Methods included recruiting agents of influence in politics and trade unions, covert support for western anti-NATO groups and youth movements, and spreading false rumours to discredit opponents. The characteristics of the internet – speed, reach, anonymity and lack of inherent security – make digital agitprop all too easy. Asymmetric or hybrid warfare is nothing new either: Russian military operations today are as much about the rebranding of Russia as a great power as territorial aggression, just as Maskirovka, or deception, is an integral part of its military doctrine.
A specific form of Russian active measures is the so-called “weaponisation” of information: data is stolen and leaked to western media when it will have the desired effect. Another is the generation by troll factories of fake postings to discredit critics and harass journalists who ask too many questions.
To counter covert measures such as these first requires the uncovering of what is actually going on. That needs the full engagement of the UK intelligence community, including the new National Cyber Security Centre, backed by the digital powerhouse that is GCHQ and by the experience of MI5 in countering subversion and the external reach of MI6. But, just as in countering terrorism, our response needs to be driven by a single national strategy run by a dedicated high-level cross-government policy task force.
The Moscow authorities need to be reminded (as they were in 1971 with the expulsion or banning from the UK of a suspected 105 Soviet spies) that we will defend ourselves robustly and not hesitate to attribute hostile acts, including state collusion in attacks by criminal groups, through sound intelligence assessment. There will be consequences for harbouring criminal hacker groups and for activity that attacks our critical national infrastructure or threatens interference with our democratic institutions and processes. As in the past, we need to deter risky behaviour, with stronger cyber defences to raise the costs to the attacker. We will also need improved offensive capabilities, as adversaries will have targetable assets they will want to protect. We need to emphasise to potential adversaries that the entanglements of modern digital and economic life entail risks for them as well as for us. Partnership with our allies will enhance these efforts. There is much to do to enhance co-operation with Europe on this counter-subversion agenda and to ensure that Brexit doesn’t get in the way. We are only as safe as Europe is.
The second type of harm comes from the more aggressive use of open media by Russia. Recent expansion of Russian foreign-language TV, print and social-media outlets present narratives designed to shape western perceptions of Russian policies and to portray Russia in a good light. Some material verges on the paranoid, portraying unrest in countries of the former Soviet Union – including the Orange Revolution in Ukraine – as the result of organised western plots.
Where we disapprove of their message we are right to describe it as propaganda. But we need to recognise that western governments themselves take pains through diplomatic and cultural outreach to extol the virtues of our values, our way of life and our economic system. Making such an observation does not imply an acceptance of moral equivalence. We believe in our liberal values and that we have a truer view of the world and how to tackle its many problems and conflicts. But we should accept that it is an argument we have to win on its (considerable) merits. Not by shielding our citizens from the Russian point of view – for example, were we to try to censor or place obstacles in the way of Russian media outlets based in the UK, in the way that Russia still harasses the British Council and, during the cold war, tried to jam the BBC. In the interests of freedom of speech we have to accept that there will be competing narratives available to our citizens (something that the internet has made easier with the multiplicity of social-media news and opinion sites).
Governments – not least in Washington – need to sharpen their strategic communications efforts and media activities so as to be able to rebut false stories and to be believed. Our free press needs not to be denigrated as fake news. Governments must organise their own affairs to be more open about the evidence on which their policies are based. The temptation to rest on force of assertion or simply belief, rather than depth of rational argument, when examining the validity of scientific and medical evidence must especially be resisted. But the main response here is not in the hands of government but in a free press, where old-fashioned journalistic fact-checking is valued.
Stories need to be checked fearlessly and falsehoods exposed to sunlight. When mistakes are made – as they will be in any enterprise, be it government, science or media – then they need to be owned up to and corrected quickly. The time may have come to revisit the proposal by Geoff Mulgan and Tom Steinberg for an Open Commission for Accuracy in the Media, to mobilise public energies to police lies and distortions with a web-based open system listing journalists, publications, news channels and other websites. This would allow the public to complain about factual inaccuracies, with a structured way for each side to present evidence ahead of independent adjudication. Journalists and media outlets that are repeat offenders would be named and shamed, in turn supporting kitemarks on websites. A system of this kind would complement the moves being proposed by Facebook and others to assist the policing of truthfulness.
The third type of harm is the indirect but pernicious subversion of the practice of rational argument that comes from long-term exposure to the promotion of false facts – not least blatant Russian denials in the face of contrary evidence and diversionary stories. The effect is to erode confidence in the public’s ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Our better instinct to see both sides of an argument leads in the face of alternative Russian narratives to situating the reality of an event – whether the invasion of Georgia, annexation of Crimea and intervention in East Ukraine – as closer to Russian assertions than the facts warrant. Such events can too easily be presented as the result of irresponsible western meddling so that legitimate Russian interests in its neighbourhood morphs into acceptance of an exclusive Russian sphere of influence over peoples.
The rising tide of fake news and alternative facts is said by Apple CEO Tim Cook “to be killing people’s minds”. He suggests that companies need to create tools that would help stem the spread of falsehoods, without impinging on freedom of speech. Technical steps can be taken to remove or limit access to propaganda outlets through the use of the conditions of use of most internet service providers and “report content” buttons. Marketing software should not allow advertising from respectable firms to give false credibility to fake news sites with clickbait.
The covert and overt propaganda activities emanating from Russia come at a time when the Trump team in Washington make things worse by the style they use to promote their own bureaucratic insurgency. The result is the further undermining of rationality in public discourse. We depend on the digital environment to give us a roughly accurate view of the world around us, but the proliferation of new and flaky internet sources can leave people with systematically distorted views of the world – which leads, in turn, to bad decisions.