Digital disinformation, cyber-warfare, and a new Cold War?

The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament’s report on Russia was published today. It will dominate headlines for a news cycle or two, adding another layer of mistrust between the UK (and the wider Western World) and President Putin and his comrades.

The opening sentences tell a powerful story.

“The dissolution of the USSR was a time of hope in the West. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Western thinking was, if not to integrate Russia fully, at least to ensure that it became a partner. By the mid-2000s, it was clear that this had not been successful.”

The first signs of a new Cold War are on the horizon. This conflict won’t bear the same characteristics as those of old. Guns, tanks and bombs are being replaced by other methods and means, such as the cyber tools and techniques mentioned in the report. Whilst the weaponisation of information is a clear threat, there are also more extreme forms of attack not included in the document, such as the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) being triggered, through which our electricity grid could be brought down.

Whilst there are multiple story angles emerging from the report, the dominant discovery (although it’s hardly revelatory) is that Russia does indeed seem intent on interfering with our democracy and society. But why?

“…in our view and that of many others, it appears fundamentally nihilistic. Russia seems to see foreign policy as a zero-sum game: any actions it can take which damage the West are fundamentally good for Russia. It is also seemingly fed by paranoia…”

It seems clear that Russia has attempted to meddle in our elections, and that it will continue to do so. It is not alone. Other rogue States with a vested interest in damaging Western democracies will employ similar tactics. We must be prepared to identify these assaults and take steps to negate their impact.

On the communication front, the tools of information warfare are often lumped together under the banner ‘fake news’. In reality, this an unhelpful catch all – and whilst it encompasses many digital weapons, it doesn’t address the breadth of cyber attacks, from hacks and leaks to distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS).

From a PR point of view, trolls farms, bots and sock puppets form the mainstay of mass disinformation campaigns – and will do so with increasing precision and deceptive capability, as artificial intelligence evolves.

If you want to understand in greater depth what these terms mean, and how they are employed, I recommend reading Peter Pomerantsev’s excellent This Is Not Propaganda’. It’s a behind the scenes tour of nefarious social media activity, clickfarms and the whole gamut of post-truth operations and operatives.

Meanwhile, if you want to delve beneath the skin of ‘fake news’ and become able to identify and categorise the different strains of the misinformation ecosystem, take a look at this excellent blog by Claire Wardle of First Draft. ‘Know thine enemy’, as Sun Tzu wrote…


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