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Subversion and manipulating public perceptions: the national security dimension

November 2020
 by Digitalis

Subversion and manipulating public perceptions: the national security dimension

November 2020
 By Digitalis

The AFF – now in its third year – is a relatively new addition to the annual calendar of international conferences. Although the famous Davos conference has been delayed until the summer of 2021 and the Munich Security Conference seems increasingly unlikely to happen on its planned date in February 2021, the fact that the AFF conference took place at all was something of a triumph. It speaks to the ambition of the initiative, which has been to build a global forum for the discussion of national security issues, led and shaped by the Atlantic alliance with shared UK and US perspectives. At the 2019 event held in Washington, Digitalis led discussions then on its work on radicalisation. On this occasion, conference speakers, both civilian political figures and those in uniform, made much of the persistent depth of the Transatlantic partnership, not least in matters of intelligence and defence, that holds strong in the midst of frothy political turbulence. Hosting the conference in the hold of the UK’s newest, and largest, aircraft carrier was symbolic. Approximately 100 socially distanced delegates attended in person, with around 400 more attendees online. 

As far the UK is concerned, the new chairmanship of Lord Mark Sedwill, the sponsorship of the Prime Minister, and the attendance of the Defence Secretary and the senior leadership of the UK armed services reflected the importance that the government attaches to this initiative. The US defence industry presence, alongside CEOs of major banks, oil companies, defence contractors, and technology companies, all but confirmed that this conference will continue to have its place in our future calendars. 

Mark Sedwill’s address established the agenda clearly. He spoke of the need to redefine national security for the future, rather than relying on legacy frameworks. According to Lord Sedwill, an effective national security strategy today means far more than simply protecting national borders from attack.

In the Cold War, national security was largely defined in terms of protection of our borders from armed attack. In recent years, counter terrorism efforts have brought the issue of national security closer to home, mobilising a wider cast of players from across government to neutralise threats. Today, the objective of any functional national security strategy is to preserve our way of life, our unity, and our coherence as a society, in a world in which aggressors move to advance their strategic interests in peacetime, as well as in war.

This social cohesion and unity are threatened as much by climate change as they are by the traditional threats. Climate change poses threats that former generations could never have understood: the new investment and disruption incurred in the struggle for net-zero carbon by 2050 will create new pressures, as will the challenge to develop resilience to navigate the impacts of the changing climate. The demographic challenge is shaped by those current projections which suggest that, by the end of the century, 40% of the world’s working population will be African, and most advanced societies will have aged significantly. Moreover, economic problems and stresses of a different kind are fast approaching, as new technologies continue to undermine the value of human labour across society. The shift of the world’s economic centre of gravity to Asia is yet another phenomenon to which the UK and Europe will need to formulate an appropriate response. Taking a broader view of the international stage, inter-state rivalry is now multidimensional – the heavy-duty tanks, ships, and aircraft that dominated the conflicts of the twentieth-century are swiftly being displaced by subtler technologies that can exploit cybersecurity systems and social media. 

Richard Meredith spoke about his experiences of national security and strategic communications, noting the corrosive impact of disinformation campaigns, Russian or otherwise, on national sentiment; particularly in times of social division. Subversion is nothing new. There were sustained efforts by the Soviet intelligence services to influence debate and undermine cohesion in the West throughout the Cold War period that were unsuccessful. Although the fundamental principles of Russian modus operandi have not evolved dramatically since the days of Lenin, the internet has provided hostile states with new outlets through which controversialists and those seeking to deepen division in national discourse can amplify their reach.

In recent years, we have publicly made much of our enemies’ cyber capabilities and their capacity to use the internet to drive disinformation campaigns. Whilst sensitising our populations to these threats, we need to be aware that the objective of these campaigns is often to frighten us into overestimating their capabilities and reach. The aim of these campaigns is only partly about widening social fissures. It is primarily about rebalancing our views of Russian power and influence, in their favour. Excited reporting on Russian capabilities and conspiracies, particularly their claimed impact on democratic electoral processes, serves to deliver exactly what the Russians want – a sense on our part that they have a powerful influence over the legitimacy of some of our most critical beliefs and institutions. 

This is a new type of warfare, being waged through our phones rather than across the plains of Central Europe. It is a capability that is cheap for hostile states to acquire and one that has no Geneva Convention to regulate. As technology advances, and tools such as Deep Fakes become more accessible, then this can only increase. With current configurations of resource and manpower, conventional armed forces in NATO are rarely well-placed to tackle hostile internet campaigns when directed at our populations. The complexity of the debate in the EU, UK, and US over tighter regulation of anti-social and non-factual content on the internet points to the difficulties that the liberal world order has in managing the political and social harms that the internet can generate. This will not be an issue that goes away; it is clearly one that the new Democrat administration in the US wants to tackle. But acknowledgement of the prevailing dangers, and affirmation of the values of truth, accuracy and fact in how we communicate through our politics and our businesses, are productive first steps. It is, after all, our societies and corporate cultures that have overseen a recent deterioration in these values. Russian interests might have fanned the flames, but they did not provide the fuel.

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