The Russia report failed to note how UK political scoring makes the system vulnerable to exploitation, Deborah Haynes writes.
Protecting the opinion of voters at election time from the pervasive influence of fake news and disinformation is an epic, imprecise and fiendishly problematic challenge.
That does not mean the UK’s spy agencies should ignore any attempt by a hostile state to tweet false claims on Brexit, Scottish independence or the prime minister, but their caution at having a role in a democratic event where British political parties are also in play is understandable – not illogical.
A long-awaited parliamentary report on Russia disagreed.
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) on Tuesday criticised MI5, MI6 and GCHQ for distancing themselves from the “hot potato” that is the defence of the UK’s democratic processes, describing such an attitude as “illogical”.
It was in the context of the threat posed by Russian disinformation – intentionally false claims that can create or amplify divisions – and influence campaigns, which use disinformation along with other tools like illicit funding and cyber attacks to manipulate voter opinion.
:: Listen to the Daily podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker
What the Russia report did not touch on, though, is how the same, murky weapon of information-shaping is not exclusively wielded by hostile states.
In fact, the political parties of the very MPs that sit on the committee are at times accused of manipulating information to support their arguments as well.
True, the alleged intent is different as they are not acting to harm the UK but to improve the chances of whatever domestic party or cause they champion.
Remember the red Vote Leave bus and its claim about sending £350million to the EU each week, which should go into the NHS instead?
Then there was “Project Fear” under David Cameron’s Conservative government, with its warnings of instant economic doom if Brexit happened.
But it all makes delving into the world of disinformation and fake news particularly delicate for Britain’s spies.
Such sensitivity then creates a vulnerability that states like Russia or China could exploit.
That is why it is vital the apparent lack of investigation into any suspicion of outside interference in the Brexit referendum – as alleged by the ISC – must not happen again.
The committee says “protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile interference” should be a ministerial priority and suggests that MI5 take lead responsibility.
But it is easy to imagine the political peril such a move carries for the security service, especially if whatever foreign influence operation they uncover around a future election or referendum is designed to help the incumbent government win.
Still, the changing nature of the threat requires government policy to adapt too, even if it might make it harder for ministers and opposition politicians to spin information.
Britain’s security agencies, along with other government departments like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, are already actively combatting disinformation away from elections.
:: Listen to Polonium and the Piano Player on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Spreaker
This was demonstrated following the Salisbury spy poisoning with officials quick – relatively speaking – to label a barrage of conflicting narratives from the Kremlin as bogus.
But the UK is playing catch-up in the wider information space – an increasingly important battle ground that the country cannot afford to lose.