How British MPs are tackling Russia's war on perception

Long before much of the world had grasped the scope of Facebook’s data breach, British MP Damian Collins was writing to CEO Mark Zuckerberg looking for answers. It was part of Britain's effort to get to the bottom of Russian meddling, online and off.

U.K. lawmakers take on study of multi-pronged Russian threat — and what to do about it

The committees of Britain's House of Commons have been very active in probing Russia's online meddling and are putting forward new ideas for tackling it. (Associated Press)

Long before much of the world had grasped the scope of Facebook's data breach, British MP Damian Collins was writing to CEO Mark Zuckerberg looking for answers.

Last October, Collins, the chair of a British inquiry into fake news, sent a letter "politely" requesting information on Russia-linked Facebook accounts in an effort to understand their role in the Brexit referendum campaign.

Collins's latest letter to Facebook, sent earlier this week, was far more forceful, demanding Zuckerberg appear before his committee — or face a formal summons the next time he lands in Britain.

Collins's pointed letters and occasionally acerbic hearings since the Facebook data breach scandal have been making headlines worldwide. Other parliaments now studying the matter in other countries have even quoted the British committee's transcripts.

MP Damian Collins had pointed questions for Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in his probe of fake news. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Lost in all that noise though, is the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee's early foray into assessing the extent of Russia's influence on the democratic process in the U.K. and beyond.

Today, the committee forms just one arm of a multi-pronged and, thus far underestimated British effort to both gather information about modern Russian threats on and off line — and to study how best to counter them.

Most recently, that effort involved a "ground-breaking" joint investigation by journalists and academics that just this past weekend uncovered Russian attempts to sway British voters in last year's general election using Twitter bots.

The effort includes a robust response from the government's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which plans both to increase defences against Russian threats, as well as increasing awareness.

The U.K. also plans a push for an international alliance to counter Russia's disinformation campaigns, one reportedly to unfold at upcoming major international summits like the G7 and the G20.

But the most active — and perhaps unlikely — front appears to be in the British Parliament.

Seeking appropriate strategy

Last month, a group of committee chairs — all dealing with different facets of the Russian threat — formed a super-committee to coordinate their findings and recommendations. The Russia Co-ordination Group includes six committee chairs — among them the crucial posts of defence, foreign affairs — and Damian Collins.

Given the threats all ultimately boil down to scenarios sowing doubt about truth and perception, his could be an outsized role.

"We know Russia is a big player in fake news around the world … we've seen evidence of intent to meddle in elections here," he said in an interview.

What they don't yet know is the extent of that meddling.

The co-ordination group, he says, will look at Russian activity and appropriate strategy across different areas, including communications interference, cyberattacks, all the way to supporting Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

Power of parliamentary committees

Committees are the perfect place to do this, the chairs argue, as they act as investigators gathering evidence from questioning witnesses — as Collins has done extensively.

"We need to have an integrated approach here to understanding that threat, and how it works and then how we can respond to that," he said.

The urgency of scrutinizing Russia's role in the U.K. rose after a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned with nerve agent in the cathedral city of Salisbury — a bold act the U.K. blames on Russia, which denies it.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned March 4 in Salisbury. (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP)

Since then, diplomats have been turfed, and the Kremlin-aligned RT Network became the subject of seven investigations due to its coverage of the story.

But the concerns about Russia's role here are longstanding — and multi-faceted. Though the online threat is growing fastest.

A 'capable state adversary'

"Well, Russia is our most capable state adversary in cyberspace. It has posed a range of threats against the U.K. in cyberspace for many years," Ciarin Martin, head of the NCSC, said in an interview last month.

"We have seen increasing cyber aggression from Russia since around 2015, that's against our hard infrastructure, and against perhaps our softer infrastructure like democratic processes."

He says there's no evidence yet that those attempts to undermine votes have been successful.

The key to countering future attempts, he added, is improving the ability among people, companies, and government to defend against such threats.
Bob Seely says Russia's new approach to conflict is based on manipulation of other societies. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Back at parliament, MP Bob Seely, an expert on Russian warfare, is drafting a new definition of the multi-faceted Russian threat, normally described as "hybrid warfare." He says "subversion" is a key word.

"The centre of gravity of Russia's war is perception," Seely, who was appointed secretary of the Russia Coordination Group, said in an interview.

He says that means traditional military power is but an element in a much broader effort: a conflict based on manipulation of other societies.

"I think we've got to get to the bottom of things and to protect ourselves."

How to combat subversion

There is a whole slew of proposals on how to counter threats of subversion in democracies: ideas that range from counter-propaganda efforts, to warnings on Kremlin-linked networks, to imposing regulation on social media platforms to help eliminate the risk of meddling by foreign forces.

The U.K. could use a standing commission that looks at Russian disinformation campaigns that reports twice or three times a year, he suggests.

Seely says the Russia Coordination Group comes into being "in the absence of the government doing something systematic."

The U.K.'s experience should be a warning to other countries holding elections, said both MPs.

They should exercise "vigilance," counselled Collins. 

"In Canada, do you want your elections rigged?" asked Seely. "Your current government has a vested interest in making sure that your electoral system is sound, that you can identify Russian bots, that you can identify fake news."

Like Collins — who testified at Canada's access to information, privacy and ethics committee on Thursday — Seely also says the effort to study and counter Russia's modern threats should cross national borders.

"If any of your elected officials want to get hold of me, please do so because we need … a joint approach."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.