On Monday, July 4th, 2022 the British government proposed a new law that would require social media companies to proactively tackle disinformation posted by foreign states. The law would aim to block fake accounts on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that are set up on behalf of foreign states to influence elections or court proceedings. The British government is pushing to make foreign interference a priority offense under its proposed Online Safety Bill, forcing technology firms to remove contravening content shared by foreign state actors. The new law will most likely be passed during this parliamentary session through an amendment to link the National Security Bill and Online Safety Bill, both of which are in the government’s current program.
The new law decrees that social media companies, search engines and other digital entities that host user-generated content will have the legal duty to “take proactive, preventative action to minimize user exposure to state-sponsored disinformation” that seeks to interfere with the U.K. and its governmental and political affairs. In taking preventative action, these companies will take part in identifying fake accounts that have been set up by groups or individuals representing foreign states who seek to interfere in democratic or legal processes. Social media platforms will need to do risk assessments for content which is illegal under the Foreign Interference Offence and put in place proportionate systems and processes to mitigate the possibility of users encountering this content.
Additionally, the law seeks to tackle the spread of “hacked information to undermine democratic institutions,” which may include accurate content that has been secretly acquired from the U.K. government or political parties. This could mean that social media companies would be forced to remove content if it includes misleading or potentially embarrassing revelations about prominent British politicians.
The move follows recent legislation announced by the British government that is designed to deter foreign state actors seeking to “undermine U.K. interests,” which includes targeting foreign attempts to meddle in domestic elections with greater maximum penalties. The proposed legislation comes shortly after MI5, the UK’s domestic counterintelligence and security agency, warned that a Chinese agent with links to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had infiltrated Parliament. The U.K. is not unfamiliar to controversy surrounding disinformation, as can be proven with Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum vote which saw the U.K. exit the European Union. A subsequent ‘Russia Report’ published by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament in July 2020, found that the British government and intelligence agencies did not conduct any real assessment of Russia’s attempts to interfere with the referendum, despite the evidence that could have proved otherwise.
While the new law seeks to dismantle disinformation perpetrated by all foreign actors, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, stated that the law specifically seeks to address recent “hostile online warfare” emerging from Russia as the war on Ukraine continues. Dorries adds, “The invasion of Ukraine has yet again shown how readily Russia can and will weaponize social media to spread disinformation and lies about its barbaric actions, often targeting the very victims of its aggression.”
On February 24th, 2022, Russian president Vladimar Putin announced that Russia was initiating a “special military operation” in the Donbas region, a southeastern region in Ukraine controlled by Russian separatist groups, and launched a full-scale invasion of the country. Within days, attacks by Russian forces were reported in major cities across Ukraine, including Berdyansk, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Sumy, and the capital Kyiv. Russia was immediately accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in addition to waging war in violation of international law and indiscriminately attacking densely populated civilian areas in Ukraine.
As a result of international condemnation of its actions, the Russian government launched a state-controlled disinformation campaign to justify the illegal invasion of Ukraine. One of the main myths being spread in the media by Russian actors accuses Ukraine of committing a genocide (drawing groundless parallels with Nazism and World War II) against its Russian-speaking population in the country’s east. There are many instances of fabricated stories created to support this myth, best illustrated by the famous example of a Russian television report accusing Ukrainian forces of crucifying a young boy in eastern Ukraine at the start of the conflict. Fact-checkers were quick to prove that the story was entirely fabricated.
Another infamous myth perpetrated by Russian actors justifies the invasion of Ukraine citing NATO’s aggressive expansion which has made Russia vulnerable and has forced the country to take defensive action. The reality is that no country or alliance is plotting to invade Russia, nor has any country threatened Russia. In fact, less than one sixteenth of Russia’s land border is shared with NATO members. Therefore, it is illogical to portray Russia, a country with the largest landmass and most nuclear weapons in the world, as a country under serious threat.
Russia has an extensive history of producing misinformation about Ukraine especially during times of war between the two countries. The Internet Research Agency, a Russian network of paid ‘internet trolls’, spread misinformation during the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. Those efforts were transferred to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and continued into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. However, Richard Stengel, a former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, pointed out that Russian disinformation campaigns were not as sophisticated as we believe them to be: “It’s not that they were so good, it’s that we were so susceptible. Disinformation always seeks a kind of biased audience. And people are receptive to it.”
A recent investigation conducted in late March 2022 found new users on the social media application “TikTok” were exposed to Russian produced disinformation within 40 minutes of joining the networking service. Levina, a woman from Kharkiv, one of the worst hit areas in Ukraine, said she found many pro-Russian videos while searching on TikTok for “Ukraine” in English, Russian, Ukrainian, and Mandarin, some of which looked staged.
While most social media apps have taken steps to remove Russian disinformation and restrict advertising in Russia, the messaging app Telegram, which is widely used in both Ukraine and Russia, has not taken such measures. The company’s co-founder, Pavel Durov, a native Russian, has committed to protect information about Ukrainian users, but continues to neglect moderating, restricting, or removing Russian disinformation, such as fake news reports and deepfake videos purporting to be of Ukrainian President Zelensky.
The past decade of managing user-generated content online has taught us that it is incredibly difficult to determine whether a user is legitimate or a bad actor employed by a foreign government. Distinguishing these bad actors from legitimate users could see vast amounts of legitimate online content or accounts face the prospect of enormous fines as internet companies struggle to comply with the legislation.
Furthermore, in the past, questions have lingered around the efficacy of an outright ban on Russian state media across the European Union. In March 2022, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen had announced that the European Union planned to ban Russian state broadcaster Russia Today (RT) and state-owned news agency Sputnik. When making the announcement, von der Leyen, vowed that the EU would develop the necessary technological tools to prevent the broadcaster from spreading “toxic and damaging disinformation” and “lies to justify Putin’s war” in Ukraine. However, with an EU ban on Russian state media, it is likely that Russia will retaliate by banning Western media. RT does not have significant influence in Europe, whereas it is vital that Russians are able to access Western media, to debunk the lies and myths perpetuated by their domestic state-controlled media.
Christian Hoffmann, Professor of Communications Management at Leipzig University, took to Twitter to write of Russian disinformation that “we overestimate the danger for us and underestimate the importance of Western media for the Russian people.”
Furthermore, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, wrote on Twitter that during the Cold War, publications such as Soviet Weekly and Sputnik as well as Radio Moscow were available in Great Britain: “I don’t think the West was worried about them.”
Let it be known that Russia’s state-controlled disinformation campaign should be condemned by all countries who value freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was an unprovoked violation of international law, despite whatever myths the Kremlin would like to produce to justify said invasion. However, micromanaging user-generated content on social media is a tedious, incredibly challenging task that cannot be done with guaranteed accuracy. If this new law is to be passed by the British Parliament, we could see legitimate users be falsely charged enormous fines by internet and social media companies who will struggle to abide by this new legislation. Furthermore, a full ban of Russian state-controlled media has already produced retaliatory efforts by the Russian government with the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s office being shut down in Moscow. Average Russian citizens are at risk of being exposed to more Russian state propaganda with lessening access to Western media to provide them with a different perspective on the war in Ukraine. The most effective way to combat the Russian disinformation campaign is for all countries who value freedom of the press to accurately report on Ukraine by continuing to relay concrete facts about Russia’s illegal actions and debunk all myths the Russian government may produce. Ultimately, the West is less susceptible to fall victim to the Russian disinformation campaign than Russians are. This means that the West has the responsibility to ensure Russians are exposed to non-state controlled media that provides them with accurate facts on their own country’s war on Ukraine.
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