Cyber security: freedom and democracy under threat

Yesterday I attended a session of the EU Ambassadors Conference - this forum gathers the EU’s permanent representatives from across the globe to exchange information and ideas with MEPs and others from the EU institutions.

The session I attended was themed around how the EU (and by implication the member states) can improve cyber security in the light of increasing attacks around the globe. The past few years has seen apparent and attempted interference in the democratic process of nations including the United States and the apparent state sponsorship of cyber aggression in various forms including mass disinformation and counterfactual propaganda.

Among those speaking to the session were the ambassadors to the Russian Federation and the United States. The picture painted was bleak. Cyber aggression is now the front line of espionage and would, almost certainly, be a pre-cursor to any physical warfare involving major developed nations. The dangers of these assumptions when heavily armed states are involved should be obvious to anyone, however, in the pseudo-cold war battle of information mass-disinformation is a key tactic that works by ensuring that the truth (i.e. factual information) is blurred, overwhelmed and discredited along with the vehicles through which factual information is disseminated.

Ensuring that populations cannot discern facts, are sceptical of factual news sources and are mistrustful of factual debate is nothing new. It has been a tactic of every totalitarian regime throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. It has been employed by the enemies of democracy to discredit democracy and by pedlars of hate to scapegoat their targets. When employed by the state it becomes one of the tools of oppression and coercion that are the apparatus of dictatorship. It is an uncomfortable truth that in both the former cold-war powers organs of the state are now employed in mass efforts to discredit factual sources and in different ways are succeeding. This more than anything else is the common ground between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The use of internet channels, social media and the decline of conventional forms of communication have not of themselves created the world of ‘alternative facts’ but they have made it a great deal easier for the purveyors of such lies to go unchallenged because there is no real difference between a population that believes a lie and a population that cannot discern what is the truth. The problem for democrats is the same as it ever was - our ‘alt’ opponents play by rules that if we adopt they win anyway. That’s not to say that the battle is hopeless, but there is little doubt that democracy is playing catch-up. In the UK the modern approach to balance in the media has led to the counterfactual claims being given equal weight to the overwhelming balance of scientific or economic thinking. It allowed counterfactual reporting of the EU by discredited reporters, one of whom now holds one of the UK’s great offices of state, to go effectively unchallenged and in the EU referendum the reporting of counterfactual statements alongside their distribution on social networks helped the leavers to prevail in the face of overwhelming factual evidence of the real damage not taking place.
Democratic politicians are fighting an information war with one hand tied behind their backs and while today’s conference made the problem clear, there is an urgent need for creative solutions that would seem to be in short supply.