Paul Niland, founder of Lifeline Ukraine, has a warning and some advice for the British public about Putin and his digital warfare as it heads to the polls.
Division. Hatred. The stoking of anger. Those are the goals of the Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg in Russia.
This is not speculation. This is according to one of the agency’s former employees, who recently shared a detailed description of the way in which it interfered with societal attitudes in the US, as part of its goal to meddle with the election of Donald Trump.
Politics should be about competing visions and such a process is something that we, in mature democracies, must always fundamentally respect and uphold; cherish even. But, that’s not how the Russians see things.
Russia sees differences of opinion as opportunities to divide. This is not new. It has always practised propaganda and worked on the age-old principle of divide and conquer. But, what is different now is the tools Russia uses to exploit these differences and to turn them into national divisions – its bot farms and online armies of paid trolls.
What we are experiencing today – and what has been the Petri dish we have lived in over the past few years – is a fresh kind of informational warfare, enabled by modern communications platforms that should, in an ideal world, be about sharing photos of our kids growing up and our cats being daft.
Instead of this, according to a recent deep dive by the New Yorker on Brexit, Britain is a place where, just a few years ago, only 1% of the population were interested in the UK’s place in the EU. The article quotes MP Rory Stewart, a former candidate for the UK Prime Minister’s job, who observes: “It is a complete mystery how something that was not a high priority issue three years ago can become in three years your defining political identity.”
Is it really such a mystery?
We should certainly take on board the genuine concerns and grievances of British voters. But, we must not give legs to the false divisions being artificially created by Russian trolls. Because, be sure of one thing – they will be there. They are not only ready for this operation, they have already laid the groundwork for it in Britain – including by strengthening partnerships with far right bodies in the UK, as they are doing across the world. Reports in recent days, for instance, have highlighted Russian troll activity in multiple African countries.
To prominent social media accounts, I offer the following advice: before amplifying any argument by quote tweeting it and thus giving it the credence of a legitimate position, look at where the argument is coming from. If the account tweeting it has a high ratio of ‘following’ vs ‘follower’ numbers, just dismiss it – especially if the account handle is alphanumeric and/or has an egg head profile. This is not simply “don’t feed the trolls” advice. Giving any oxygen to malicious and fabricated arguments helps such arguments gain a foothold in the mainstream and pollutes our public discourse.
Russia’s goals are advanced by its propaganda platforms such as RT. The motive of Vladimir Putin and his corrupt clan is not to promote their way of life as better, but to show the flaws of democracy – something that is denied to the Russian people. In order to achieve that, they must undermine the very principles of democracy. This enables them to carry on stealing and hiding wealth and – in the case of Brexit – to divide and weaken the EU, which has consistently renewed sanctions against Russia.
Have no doubt that Russia is not only preparing for war, but – from its perspective – it is at war. Its aim in the UK is to create chaos and it already has. We know that votes in the UK have been subject to foreign influence in the past, as well as being subjected to unsafe domestic practices such as the use of the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. The technology behind the company was once categorised as “weapons grade” and, as it is absolutely standard practice for Russia to create analogous versions of all kinds of Western weapons systems, the betting on Russia having its own version of this psychological manipulation tool, deployed via the Internet Research Agency, has pretty short odds.
The UK stands at a precipice, a point in time where we will see if democratic norms will be respected, as they are likely to be abused both by foreign adversaries and by shockingly, self-interested domestic political players.
The ultimate safeguard against all of this is the electorate. An informed electorate. My advice is to not fall for the rhetoric and reject the attempts of both foreign and domestic players to agitate and anger.
Britain is better than that. Don’t fall for it.
Paul Niland is an Irish writer and political commentator based in Kyiv, Ukraine.