“Disinformation is a continuing threat to our values and our democracy”

Blog post by Alex Aiken

Tuesday 12 June 2018

On the day he speaks at the NATO strategic communications conference in Riga, Alex Aiken explains why strategic communications is key to our national security

Today I’m speaking at the NATO StratComms Summit in Riga.

The summit takes place against the context of a rising threat from disinformation, to which strategic communications is uniquely placed to respond.

Over its 100-year history government communications has always been considered vital to national security.

But strategic communications’ place at the heart of national security policy has been affirmed by the Prime Minister’s Fusion Doctrine.

The Doctrine, unveiled in March, says Government must use the full suite of security, economic, diplomatic and influence capabilities to deliver our national security goals.

This means strategic communications are to be considered with the same seriousness as financial or military options.

So how should we as strategic communicators approach disinformation?

Our adversaries are more advanced than we are 

This threat is not entirely new: at least as far back as 1688, Great Britain’s Privy Council released a proclamation against the spreading of false news.

But changes in the past two decades mean we face particular challenges.

Firstly, our adversaries are more advanced than us. In 2005, Al Qaeda were already explicitly waging an information war against the West, while Daesh have always prioritised investment in this area.

Hostile states such as Russia reportedly spend between $600 million to $1 billion annually in sophisticated disinformation campaigns.

Second, the media environment has changed radically in the past two decades.

Where once editors and journalists moderated public discourse, we have a more ungoverned online information space where sensationalism and anger are some of the key determinants of popularity.

Certain core characteristics underline what is popular: combative rather than dispassionate debate, opinion rather than factual observation and artisan posturing rather than reasoned analysis.

Third, the public don’t yet see disinformation as a problem.

Polling research has shown that the under-30s demonstrate the highest confidence levels in identifying untrue content on social media – yet are the most likely to believe conspiracy theories and least likely to trust traditional news sources.

This is especially true for those between the ages of 18 and 24, which is also the age group most likely to trust social media (which is arguably the nexus for the creation of un-true stories).

And regardless of the environment, disinformation is an area in which our adversaries will always have certain advantages.

Hostile states and terrorist groups lack our commitment to facts, consistency and credibility.

Salisbury 

In the aftermath of the Salisbury incident HMG quickly faced more than 30 false narratives spun by the Kremlin.

But while fake news can temporarily beat fact, its cannot overcome a compelling story based on the laws, values and standards which underpin the rules based international system.

Despite the challenges, we are demonstrating our ability to counter disinformation or building capability where gaps have been identified.

In the face of Russia’s cloud of lies after Salisbury, we stuck to the facts, focussing on building respect and winning the trust of our audiences rather than rebutting every false Russian narrative.

We were clear about our case – the Russian state had the means, method and motivation to undertake this attack.

We wanted to uphold the rule of law and the international system.

The Prime Minister set out the facts in the House of Commons with a ten point plan setting out how we would respond – the Fusion doctrine in practice – covering economic, diplomatic, communication and other action designed to reassure the British public, deter our adversary and build an international coalition.

The Rapid Response Unit 

Over the past 100 years we have received fantastic support from our allies around the world and from NATO and the EU – nations which share our values and recognise the threat.

When stories are damaging enough that they must be rebutted before they begin to take hold, we must spot these issues early.

So at the end of last year I announced plans to build a rapid response unit (RRU), a social media capability to help reclaim a fact-based public debate.

The RRU expands existing digital analysis (including identifying misinformation and disinformation) and content capability to communicate public information that is accurate, clear and responsive.

As well as technological solutions, we’re building resilience by focussing on recruiting staff with the right skills, from a range of backgrounds to understand all our audiences.

They form part of the expanded the National Security Communications Team (NSCT) within the GCS both to provide resource to deliver key communications campaigns and to create a development pathway.

And the NSCT works closely and collaboratively across government with policy and operational colleagues to ensure that we have coherent plans for the range of threats we face and the right strategic communication to deter our enemies.

In March 2017, we and our European Union colleagues committed to the London Charter, which contains a host of efforts to fight threats to free communication and pluralism.

We are constantly strengthening our inter-governmental relations, for instance by working with partners to build a coalition to combat disinformation. This means working with organisations such as the Atlantic Council who have recently created the https://disinfoportal.org/

Meanwhile, the Government is reviewing media sustainability to ensure that the UK has a vibrant, independent and plural free press as one of the cornerstones of our public debate.

We are doing all of this because disinformation is a continuing threat to our values and our democracy.

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