Damian Collins, MP: There is no guarantee the truth can spread more successfully than a campaign of disinformation
Jul 16 2018
This op-ed was originall published in the Times of London on July 16, 2018. Damian Collins is chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, and MP for Folkestone and Hythe
The Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg knows that just like a computer or biological virus, information spreads from one person to another and through mass media to millions. In co-ordinated campaigns, multiple messengers act together to help stories go viral.
The greater the control over the way in which the message is conveyed, the stronger the influence on the target audience and therefore the more likely the virus will take hold and be successfully shared.
Using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Russia has an active strategy to infect our western democracies with campaigns of disinformation, with the purpose of spreading doubt and confusion, turning communities against each other and undermining confidence in our public institutions.
Thanks to the hearings in the United States congress we know that during the 2016 presidential election the Russians ran over 3,000 adverts on Facebook and Instagram to promote 120 Facebook pages in a campaign that reached 126 million Americans.
In further evidence from Facebook given to the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee which I chair, we know that the Russians used sophisticated targeting techniques and created customised audiences to amplify extreme voices in the campaign, particularly those on sensitive topics like race relations and immigration.
Facebook evidence to the select committee also shows that the Russians ran anti-immigration ads targeting users in the UK in the run up to the Brexit referendum. Twitter has confirmed that the Internet Research Agency had active accounts targeting British voters during the referendum as well.
A joint research project by the Universities of Swansea and UC Berkeley in California identified 156,252 Russian accounts tweeting about #Brexit and that they posted over 45,000 Brexit messages in the last 48 hours of the campaign.
Further research by the consultancy 89up has shown that the Kremlin-backed media outlets RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik had more reach on Twitter for anti-EU content than either Vote Leave or Leave.EU, during the referendum campaign.
Yet this analysis is based on looking at accounts we can easily trace back to Russia, but there may be many more. I recently met with the head of cybersecurity at a major UK bank who told me that they are regularly attacked from Russia, but that increasingly this is done by hacking first into servers based in the UK from which the operation is launched. This action is taken to deliberately try and hide the fact that the attack originated in Russia.
In addition to this direct Russian interference in elections, the DCMS committee has also received evidence the leading political donor to the Brexit cause Arron Banks had previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador and businessmen where possible gold and diamond deals were discussed, although Mr Banks has said that nothing came of these conversations.
Backdoor meetings between Russian businessmen and politicians would appear to belong in a spy movie. But they’re happening in real life and in centre stage. There is a moral imperative to shine a light on them.
Mr Banks? Why did he downplay the importance of these discussions to our committee? Most importantly — and many have asked — where did Mr Banks get the money to help fund Brexit?
We also know that the man at the centre of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scraping scandal, Dr Aleksandr Kogan who was born in the former Soviet Union, was also working at the same time on a project on cyberbullying at the University of St Petersburg, which was sponsored by the Russian government.
Dr Kogan’s work is being investigated by the UK Information Commissioner and they believed that the Facebook data he gathered may have been accessed by third parties in other countries, including Russia.
In the Darwinian battle of ideas being played out in the news feeds of millions of social media account holders, there is no guarantee that the truth will be a more successful virus than a campaign of disinformation.
If anything, the burden of the truth, to inform and persuade, is much greater than a campaign of lies designed to merely shock and confuse. This is a potent threat and we need to do more to act together to defeat it. That is why I am attending a special conference being organised by the Atlantic Council in Washington today discussing the Kremlin’s interference in elections.
This event is bringing together politicians from around the world who have been leading investigations into these issues, including the United States senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, and Bob Zimmer and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith from the House of Commons of Canada.
In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter setting out their ambitions for the new world order after the war. This included in clause three of the charter that nations should “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live”. 75
In upholding that principle we believe in liberty, democracy and the rule of law, which in both the USA and Britain guards against foreign interference in our politics and elections.
Yet the mounting evidence of how Russia is using social media to spread fake news and disinformation, shows how easily this principle in the Atlantic Charter is being breached.
Today we need to renew that Charter for the digital age, underlining our commitment to act against the attack by Russia on our democracies and establishing the responsibilities as well of the major tech companies to provide real transparency to users on where the messages they are seeing are originating from.
In addition to this, there needs to be more action against accounts that are proven to be spreading campaigns of disinformation, and to stop foreign agencies from running political adverts during our election campaigns.