The Cold War was a war of information and misinformation. Intelligence and counter-intelligence. The ideologies of communism and liberal democracy head to head in a bid to win the hearts of the world whilst doing their best to manoeuvre people and warheads like chess pieces across the globe.
To be able to know your enemy’s next move is to be prepared and to feed your enemy misinformation is to throw your adversary off balance. When the mind is diverted one way, you can move the other and potentially gain the advantage. Russia, America and Europe were all embroiled in this war of secrecy and spy-craft.
The methods of warfare have changed. Where once troops were sent in to stomp the ground, wipe-out enemy placements or just generally shake the hornet nest, we hack phones, use drones and wipe out our enemies with cold efficiency.
During the Brexit referendum and the presidential election campaign of 2016 we were witness to a campaign of misinformation the likes of which we have never seen. Bot related activity increased tweeting and retweeting far-right stories, many of which were not even true. Bots threw ludicrous promises into the cloud where they landed and formed puddles of disinformation. The old saying that a lie can get half way around the world before the truth can get its pants on has never been so apt.
Lies are fast and easy. Seeking the truth is a more tricky and dastardly affair. Russian bots launched disinformation in high volumes, essentially flooding social media with content that was aimed at directing people’s anger and fear toward anyone that wasn’t Leave or Trump, especially Muslims, Mexicans and foreigners in general.
During the span of the 2016 presidential elections and the referendum to leave the European Union, Russian bot activity was at its highest. Twitter handles like NovostiKirov, (Novosti is Russian for “news”) @RussialsBeauty were among those quickly pointed out. Other bots gave themselves American titles in the hope of coming across as nationals or else giving themselves an air of authenticity. DailyNewsDenver, DallasTopNews and JackieCowboy are only a few.
The fact that most of the twitter accounts went dark after the referendum and presidential campaign is evidence that these accounts were not owned by people in the fight for long-haul change but instead had a simple one-track directive. To not see this kind of intervention for what it is would be catastrophic as it would mean that our political processes are being interrupted and swayed by outside forces, essentially mean that those people who talk of championing national pride were, in fact, aided by foreign superpowers.
That is a worrying prospect indeed.
Robert Mueller’s report has been a long sought after document and it recently showed that there was no conclusive evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia. This is a good sign (though yet to be completely verified) but it does not change the fact that Russian intervention in our democratic processes is still taking place. URL’s of the bots were tracked back to the IRA (Internet Research Agency) based in St. Petersburg. The IRA is a branch of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) whose digital fingerprints can be found on “Kremlin-ordered operations around the world.”
It is clear that we are seeing a new war of being waged. But it is a one-sided war of counter-intelligence. A bombardment of (I hate to say it) Fake News.
While the Cold War was a war of intelligence and counter-intelligence we are now living in the post-truth era where narrative (real or imagined) clings with stronger fingers than fact. That is how the war is being waged. Not with the threat of nuclear war, but with the erosion of intelligence and the altering of perception.
Disinformation is lethal. Without truth we are unable to make concise decisions. If we believe in “alternative facts”, post truths and outright lies or worse yet, if we ignore experts like Michael Gove would have it, any truth can become reality. Like believing that Trump was good for the nation despite being aided, directly or indirectly, by Vladimir Putin.
Russia wanted the U.S to pick Donald Trump. Russia wanted the U.K to vote for Brexit. Russia has been proven to have been involved in these processes and sought after the two very outcomes that the U.K and the U.S.A chose in the pivotal year of 2016.
We need to ask ourselves why it is that Russia wanted these outcomes. And when we look at the outcome, that our people are divided, that we are entrenched in our political spheres and no longer considering bipartisanship as a way forward and that we cannot singularly agree on any way forward…well… I think we have our answer.