James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
How vulnerable are we to hostile propaganda activities of foreign powers and agencies? What should we do in response?
There’s been an explosion of interest in these questions – mainly because the US Government has implicated Russian hackers in operations seen pre-election, but also, partly, because of governing elites’ incredulity at Trump’s win and Brexit (which does not detract from the seriousness of the hacking allegations).
The current debate risks conflating two issues: hacking, which is essentially cyberwarfare; and propaganda, which is the creation of hostile narratives against a particular country to undermine its own population’s morale, or to turn people in other countries against it. I deal with propaganda here.
Propaganda can be a threat to a country both practically and existentially. Practically, because Governments and other agencies must find ways of detecting and combating it. Existentially, because Governments must ensure propaganda has no resonance with the public.
Practically, the detection of propaganda – like so-called “fake news” – is relatively easy. The problem is countering it because of its scale on web platforms with no editors, and because Government departments and agencies are not geared up for such operations – made up, as they are, of press officers, speechwriters and events and marketing executives. To be fair, they’re also hamstrung by endless rules and regulations that make combat online nearly impossible.
The Home Office’s counter-extremism team – RICU – has outsourced at least some of its work to third party agencies. This is sensible and the model should be extended. There must be close supervision and oversight but countering propaganda and extremism can’t be done effectively from Whitehall.
Ultimately, practical threats matter only if there’s an existential threat; and such a threat exists for Britain. The most powerful propaganda operations successfully project moral values to the public – and those susceptible to them have some form of real or perceived moral weakness.
While I personally emphatically reject this view, we’d be naïve not to recognise that a significant number in Britain feel our recent foreign policy has been immoral, that our history is shameful and that the capitalist system as we know it is also morally bankrupt. Beyond this significant minority is a bigger group that think there’s something to all this.
We’re therefore highly vulnerable to outside forces persuading us collectively that we should stay out of certain security operations, that our troops behave unlawfully, or that our trade deals might be exploitative. Essentially we’re highly vulnerable to those that say, for all their talk about freedom and liberty, liberal democracies have a poor record.
In Britain, we lack a shared moral confidence. In a democracy, some division is inevitable and should be welcomed. But this lack of moral confidence – and the deliberate eating away of it – is getting more pronounced. Twitter and social media amplifies it, but we seem increasingly incapable of standing up and fighting blatant hostility designed to undermine our institutions.
Sketching out answers to this existential problem might fit into a short book but are well beyond a short blog. Suffice to say, things like an oath of allegiance, however well-intentioned, aren’t going to do much. It’s a much more serious problem.