Wednesday 16 January 2019

The only way to protect democracy is to play Russia at its own propaganda game

Double agent Sergei Skripal pictured back in 2006. Photo: Getty Images
Double agent Sergei Skripal pictured back in 2006. Photo: Getty Images

Juliet Samuel

The Skripal poisoning incident should be a wake-up call. The world's democracies have buried their heads in the sand despite Russia's obvious hostility to us, our values and the international system of rules that is meant to keep the peace. To say this is not war-mongering, but a logical conclusion drawn from Moscow's behaviour, from Syria to Ukraine, from its cyber-attacks to its interference in Western elections.

Now, though, the Russian threat is evolving in ways we cannot ignore. It has infiltrated the networks that shape public opinion and found them undefended. It has waged information warfare on civil society. And it has done this so successfully that, having used chemical weapons on our streets, Moscow is sapping our will to do much about it.

Underlying Russia's success is an insight that oppressive regimes mastered more quickly than the West: public opinion is exceptionally pliable. It's no wonder we have failed to grasp this. Western democracy is an Enlightenment project. The belief that all humans are autonomous thinkers and that truth will emerge from the freedom to speak is ingrained in our politics. Let information circulate freely and it will work its magic.

Effective political operators have long understood that information is not neutral, however, and not just in the Kremlin. 'The Observer' newspaper yesterday published a report based on a whistleblower from the political campaigning firm Cambridge Analytica. It revealed that a powerful group of data nerds, right-wing campaigners, and intelligence agencies have come to the same conclusion.

Based on the insight that everyone's psychological profile affects their response to messaging, Cambridge Analytica set about harvesting data. It built a database of millions of people and then targeted messages at them via social media to extraordinarily powerful effect in the Brexit and Trump campaigns.

The controversy centres on the legality of how it obtained this data. But the more important revelation is how pathetically easy it is to manipulate humans.

What Western governments missed was how vulnerable their own populations are to these tactics. Given the ubiquity of lies, this is now a major threat to the idea that voters can make free and fair decisions. In other words, it threatens the basis of democracy.

Moscow's strategy is to mount an all-out attack on the idea of truth. To sap our resolve, it isn't necessary to convince us of crazy conspiracy theories. All that's needed is to sow doubt. That isn't hard. Just flood social media with people making contradictory claims. Spread extracts from reports with apparently compromising sections taken out of context and highlighted.

When decisive action is required, this is particularly effective. Doubters start to say things like, "shouldn't we at least wait for more evidence?" or "isn't Russia entitled to due process?" In doing so, they are playing directly into the Kremlin's hands. The arguments against them are hard to articulate. Believers in free speech cannot abolish doubt. But we can point out that international relations aren't like a courtroom. There is no "due process" involving a perfect set of information. The truth is the West has become lazy.

Our governments should act, and the first strategy must be a fightback against falsehoods. Within days of incidents like Salisbury, the authorities should compile a dossier of facts, and distribute it widely. This does not need to involve sensitive intelligence. It could outline what is known about Moscow's Novichok programme. It could educate on how scientists identify chemicals and their origins. It could document the lies the Kremlin told over the death of Alexander Litvinenko. It could include supporting evidence, like the statement by the scientist who developed the USSR's Novichok chemicals that non-state actors simply cannot handle them safely.

This will require a shift to a more open attitude, but users online are hungry for facts. A fightback would find a ready audience.

This alone will not suffice, because, as Cambridge Analytica understood, humans aren't wholly rational. So governments and believers in truth need to play the propaganda machines at their own game.

As Mikhail Khordokovsky, the former oligarch and founder of Open Russia, a democracy campaign group, put it to me: "People are not able and do not want to interpret contradictory information flow themselves. We need accurate and emotional interpretations from famous people and through a new culture (videos, games, social networks)." These interpretations should then be targeted, just like a propaganda message, to hit home.

We are in a new phase in the battle of ideas. The survival of our democracy depends on its supporters mastering the new weapons in this fight. Otherwise, we leave the field clear for our enemies.

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