British democracy is in peril. Russian Twitter bots, Facebook advertisements, and ‘fake news’ on RT have contributed to Brexit, boosted opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, and undermined Britons’ faith in their system of government. If you don’t believe me, here are just a few headlines which have appeared in the British media in the past couple of years:
- ‘Clear evidence Russia interfered in 2015 UK election, says former Labour minister,’ The Independent, 21 February 2017.
- ‘Here’s the first evidence Russia used Twitter to influence Brexit,’ Wired.co.uk, 10 November 2017.
- ‘Theresa May accuses Vladimir Putin of election meddling,’ BBC, 14 November 2017.
- ‘Russian bid to influence Brexit vote detailed in new US Senate report,’ The Guardian, 10 January 2018.
- ‘Exposed: Russian Twitter bots tried to swing general election for Jeremy Corbyn,’ Sunday Times, 29 April 2018.
- ‘Why isn’t there greater outrage about Russia’s involvement in Brexit?’ The Guardian, 17 June 2018.
- ‘Russia is waging a blatant disinformation war using Kremlin-funded RT,’ Daily Mail, 18 September 2018.
- ‘Russian interference goes beyond spying to the very heart of Britain’ The Guardian, 7 October 2018.
As regular readers of this blog will recall, the British House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee decided to investigate these matters. In an interim report issued in July, it declared that:
We are faced with a crisis concerning the use of data, the manipulation of our data, and the targeting of pernicious views. In particular, we heard evidence of Russian state-sponsored attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK through social media. … In this rapidly changing digital world, our existing legal framework is no longer fit for purpose. … Our democracy is at risk.
The British government has now given its official response to this report, which you can read here. In this, the government says:
As noted by the Committee, the Prime Minister stated that Russia is seeking to weaponise information, … We want to reiterate, however, that the Government has not seen evidence of successful use of disinformation by foreign actors, including Russia.
The government is not saying that the Russian state has not tried to influence people in Britain. But it is saying that it has no evidence to suggest that any efforts to do so have been successful. In other words, it’s telling the committee that its claims about Russian electoral interference amount to a big fuss about nothing. Our democracy is not at risk, after all. Still, the government declares that it ‘has committed over £100m over five years to tackling the threat of Russian State disinformation internationally.’ Clearly it wants to cover its backside by not appearing complacent, but one has to wonder why it thinks that if Russian propaganda is so unsuccessful, British propaganda (for that is what in effect is being discussed) is either needed or is likely to have any effect.
The Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Damian Collins, was not happy with the government’s response. He declared:
The government’s response to our interim report on disinformation and ‘fake news’ is disappointing and a missed opportunity. It uses other ongoing investigations to further delay desperately needed announcements on the ongoing issues of harmful and misleading content being spread through social media. We need to see a more coordinated approach across government to combat campaigns of disinformation being organised by Russian agencies seeking to disrupt and undermine our democracy.
In other news, I note that the British police declared this month that they ‘will not investigate allegations of Russian state interference in the 2016 EU referendum.’ The police commented that, ‘International bodies and states cannot commit criminal offences’ under electoral legislation, and that ‘truthfulness during the campaign “is not a criminal offence per se and therefore not a police matter”.’ Clearly, the British police have better things to do than waste their time chasing chimeras. Mr Collins and his committee, by contrast, seem to be determined to press on regardless. To misquote Admiral Farragut, ‘Damn the evidence, full speed ahead!’