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Britain’s (opaque) war on Russian propaganda

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LONDON — Britain’s gone to war on Kremlin disinformation — but critics worry it’s not being nearly open enough about its battle plan.

As Kremlin-controlled media pumped out falsehoods as a pretext for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a new unit, the government information cell, began a swift fightback, posting its own social media content debunking Moscow’s claims.

Elsewhere, the U.K.’s existing Counter Disinformation Unit (the CDU) — last in the spotlight for taking on COVID-19 disinformation — has been urging tech giants to take down posts on Ukraine it thinks are dangerous and false.

But experts say it is still early days for the strategy, and warn the government needs to be much more transparent about what exactly it’s up to in order to avoid confusion and even the risk of censorship.

Britain’s been under pressure to get tough on Kremlin propaganda for years. A scathing 2020 report on the U.K.’s Russia policy by parliament’s intelligence and security committee lambasted the government for treating the issue of disinformation as a “hot potato,” with no one department or organization taking an overall lead.

Ministers have also been criticized for dragging their heels on a new online safety law that will give regulators the power to lift the lid on how Big Tech companies are dealing with falsehoods on their own platforms.

The new units are now up and running, and the safety law is finally making its way through parliament. So what does the strategy look like under the hood?

Overhaul

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has been quick to claim ownership of the U.K.’s latest anti-disinformation drive, which only got going in earnest in February.

“Liz has overhauled our counterinformation and anti-propaganda capabilities so they’re fit for the social media age,” a Foreign Office official said. “She sees combating Kremlin fake news as a key part of the effort to ensure Putin fails and isolate Russia internationally. Winning the airwaves is important.”

The new unit, Truss said in February, is dedicated to “rebutting the Kremlin’s fake narratives designed to justify the unjustifiable,” and the official pointed out that Britain has been moving to release and declassify intelligence “in a way we haven’t since the Cold War, probably since the Cuban missile crisis, to help expose malign Russian activity.”

The new government information cell includes experts in analysis, communications, disinformation and behavioral science, drawn from across the British government.

It analyzes and assesses Russian disinformation, guides government messaging and runs its own communications campaigns, both in-house and with the private sector. Its social media posts have been translated into multiple languages, including German, Arabic and Mandarin to ensure maximum reach.

There’s a global ambition too — the cell is sharing its reports on disinformation with NATO and EU allies, as well as members of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which includes Australia and New Zealand.

By the time the new cell got going, Britain had already tried to get ahead of Putin, releasing intelligence in January suggesting Russian security agencies were trying to replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The U.K. government has continued to call out what it sees as “false flag” claims used by the Kremlin to provide a pretext for action since then.

The jury is still out on this proactive strand of the U.K.’s disinformation work. Tim Squirrell, head of communications and editorial at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) — a think tank that identifies and tracks online manipulation and disinformation, and advises governments — said it was still “too early to say what, if any, effect the HMG efforts to counter pro-Kremlin disinformation will have.”

The disinfo spreadsheet

But the U.K. is not just trying to directly confront Russian propaganda with its own messages. It’s also leaning on social media companies to root out misleading claims from their own platforms — and it’s in this tricky area where the biggest concerns are currently being raised.

Part of the job of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s counterdisinformation unit — which made a name for itself during the pandemic — is to engage directly with social media platforms to flag what it sees as dangerous and incorrect claims published on their platforms.

The government has so-called trusted flagger status with many of the major social media platforms, allowing it to flag harmful disinformation more directly to platforms, although final decisions remain in the hands of the platforms.

On March 10, DCMS flagged five tweets posted by the Russian Embassies in the U.K. and South Africa, and the Russian Mission in Geneva that it believed breached Twitter’s rules.

Concerns run both ways — with those inside government expressing some frustration at the way tech companies respond, and those on the outside unsure about the rules of engagement.

Caroline Dinenage, a former digital minister who oversaw the unit at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, said it “springs into life at particular points of crisis” and tries to work across all Whitehall departments with “skin in the game,” and with the British Army’s 77 Brigade, a unit tasked with using non-lethal and non-military tactics against adversaries.

But, Dinenage said, the setup has its frustrations and, during her time in charge of getting the social giants to act had been an “unreliable and inconsistent process.”

“We would be flagging concerning content,” she said. “We kept a spreadsheet of the stuff that we flagged with them, and how long it was before they took it down.”

“It had to be significantly troubling disinformation before they would act. The bar is very high and it takes a long time,” she added, citing those frustrations as a reason why the upcoming Online Safety Bill matters.

“At the moment the social media platforms work within their own codes of practice, which are quite opaque. When the Online Safety Bill is published those codes of practice will need to be much more transparent, and overseen by [broadcast regulator] Ofcom so we’ll be more able to regulate them,” Dinenage said.

Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary, Lucy Powell MP, argued that delays to the bill, which was only introduced in the House of Commons a few weeks ago, had “allowed the Russian regime’s disinformation to spread like wildfire online.”

Crisis concerns

Campaigners meanwhile fear that the proposed legislation will not do enough to force meaningful change in the way tech firms handle disinformation — and warn about the secrecy surrounding its work.

While Ofcom, the media regulator, will be given powers under the Online Safety Bill to look at the systems used by tech platforms to protect users from harm, and will set up an advisory committee on disinformation and misinformation to guide companies, some fear that setup won’t be nimble enough in a crisis.

Glen Tarman, head of advocacy and policy at fact-checking organization Full Fact, which has received funding from Facebook through its third-party fact-checking program, said they are concerned the Online Safety Bill still has nothing to say about “information incidents and crises,” and “would not be enough in a fast-moving environment.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a transparency report from last year and the regulator Ofcom is looking at whether their risk assessments are good or not if the information environment is being corrupted in real time, and things are getting quite serious,” he said.  

Others remain concerned about how transparent the government is being, and want much more insight on the criteria it uses for choosing content to flag to tech firms.

Multiple MPs have sought information about what the Counter Disinformation Unit has considered, the scale of the action it has taken, and pressed for examples of disinformation it has identified, but have been been told by ministers in answer to parliamentary questions “it would not be appropriate to provide a running commentary.”

“Ministers should be much more transparent about how effective the Counter Disinformation Unit is in working with tech companies,” Labour’s Powell said. “The unit must be more accountable to parliament to ensure fast and effective action to keep our citizens and country safe.”  

Civil liberties campaigners are also concerned about this lack of transparency, fearing that a refusal to be open about decision-making could undermine freedom of speech in the U.K.

“The very fact that there is a clandestine government unit, tasked with monitoring and forcing the censorship of citizens’ lawful expression, is chilling,” Mark Johnson, legal and policy officer at pressure group Big Brother Watch. “Not only is this a violation of the right to free speech but it is also an affront to the rule of law,” he said.

Full Fact’s Tarman agrees that a lot of “undue secrecy” remains about the way the disinformation team works.

“The CDU does some really valuable work, but we’re really concerned that through it, the government undertakes what we call censorship by proxy. It pressures the internet companies to restrict content. That could be on things that parliament wouldn’t want it to,” he said.

“I think one thing the Ukrainian crisis is telling us is that dealing with the corruption of the information environment as openly as you can is actually really helpful,” he added.

A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport stressed it is for platforms to make a decision on this content, and to determine how its removal is communicated to users, based on their terms and conditions. 

“We are committed to the transparency and democracy of this process, while ensuring the security of the unit is not compromised, and have been clear about its work before select committees and parliament,” they added.

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