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  • Ross Burley

"Battleships in the age of "Call of Duty"

First published in The Telegraph on the 15th September 2020

The usual gluttony of leaks and lobbying accompanies this year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review. Under an intensifying political spotlight, the Armed Forces, MPs, Ministry of Defence mandarins and the Number 10 “super forecasters” continue to cajole and plot how to carve out a slice of the MoD’s £55 billion budget.

Yet all of them are missing the greatest threat to us all: hostile state-backed disinformation and influence operations. Over the past decade, these malicious activities have been at the heart of geopolitical events across the world: Crimea, the Syrian civil war, the rise and fall of Daesh, the Rohingya crisis, Brexit, and elections from Australia to Zimbabwe.

The very understanding of objective truth, and perceptions of who and what can be trusted, are being eroded. Indeed, the aim of some of these hostile actors, including Russia and China, is to create a world where truth cannot be distinguished from fiction. Where “alternative facts” replace the real thing.

In reality, influence operations have replaced conventional warfare as the tool of choice for our enemies.

Yet, the response from those targeted by hostile disinformation has been too modest in scale and slow to implement. Governments and multilateral organisations still do not recognise the urgency of the challenge to confront information operations. The UK government – to give credit where it’s due – has been better than most. Various government departments have begun to look seriously at the issue, including the Cabinet Office, DCMS and the Foreign Office. Ministerial attention is beginning to manifest itself. But as the Russia Report made clear, the chain of command is confused.

Meanwhile, spending conversations revolve around conventional weaponry. There has been disagreement over Challenger 2 battle tanks, which cost £4.6 million per unit.

With that amount of money, a malign state could design and deploy a false campaign about the dangers of 5G and its links to COVID-19. It could hire a “black PR” company in eastern Europe, southern Africa or the eastern Mediterranean to design convincing “viral” content. Through advertising, they could reach millions of people, who in turn would share content to their own networks.

Within a month, this campaign would have inserted a seed of doubt into the minds of millions of users, about whether there really was a link between 5G and COVID-19.

That’s why it is staggering to hear of defence chiefs arguing about the military value of a tank designed in 1986: not only has the battlefield changed beyond all recognition since then, but so has the very notion of what a battlefield is and where it exists.

In short: We’re arguing about how play “Battleships” in the age of “Call of Duty”.

If it is serious about the “Global Britain” agenda, the UK Government has a chance to establish itself as a recognised bulwark against the use of information operations that are eroding democracy, and start to build a consensus to turn the tide.

First, the Government must act on the recommendations within the Russia Report. We urgently need to give one Government department ownership of the issue or create a new agency with the clout – and budget – to implement change.

In 2017, the Obama administration recognised the dangers of disinformation, and created the Global Engagement Center, a joint State Department and Department of Defense centre of excellence – originally to counter Daesh content. It now focuses on hostile state disinformation.

Second, our current generation of MPs need to urgently recognise the scale of the problem. Some are doing so – Tom Tugendhat, Damian Collins, Ben Bradshaw and Stewart McDonald have all been well ahead of the curve – but this needs to become a truly cross-party endeavour, with participation from big hitters on all sides of our political debate.

While it may be tempting to ignore such interference when it supports your cause, MPs should know that Russia is never on their side; instead they simply seek to tip the scales in whichever direction causes most harm to the UK, switching allegiances as needed.

Third, the Government needs to implement policies that incentivise social-media companies to take responsibility for content on their platforms. Too frequently, and too easily, hostile states circumvent their rules to continue to push false narratives and undermine democracy.

We must recognise that this– truly – is the challenge of our times. The scale of the problem requires an ambitious, collective response. Governments, civil society, academia, tech and business all have a role to play. So rather than advocating for this tank, or that plane, those conducting the defence review should consider how influence operations have changed the world around us. It’s time we caught up.

Ross Burley is Co-Founder of the Centre for Information Resilience, a non-profit social enterprise that identifies, counters and exposes influence operations.

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