UK strengthens internet laws to tackle Russian disinformation – The Organization for World Peace | Panda Anku

On Monday 4th July 2022 the UK Government proposed a new one Law that would oblige social media companies to proactively counter disinformation posted by foreign states. The law would aim to block fake accounts on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter that are set up on behalf of foreign states to influence elections or court processes. The UK government is pushing to make foreign interference a priority offence proposed online safety law, forcing tech companies to remove conflicting content shared by foreign state actors. The new law will most likely be passed during this session of Parliament through an amendment to link the National Security Bill and the Online Safety Bill, both of which are included in the current government programme.

The new law mandates that social media companies, search engines and other digital businesses that host user-generated content have a legal duty to “take proactive, preventive measures to minimize user exposure to state-sponsored disinformation.” aimed at disrupting the UK and its state and political affairs. Through proactive measures, these companies participate in identifying fake accounts set up by groups or individuals representing foreign states who seek to interfere in democratic or legal processes. Social media platforms must conduct risk assessments for content that is illegal under the Foreign Interference Offense and put in place appropriate systems and processes to reduce the likelihood that users will encounter this content.

In addition, the law seeks to combat the proliferation of “hacked information designed to undermine democratic institutions,” which may contain accurate content secretly acquired by the UK government or political parties. This could mean social media companies would be forced to remove content if it contained misleading or potentially embarrassing revelations about prominent British politicians.

The move follows legislation recently announced by the UK government aimed at deterring foreign state actors trying to “undermine British interests”, including tackling foreign attempts to meddle in domestic elections with higher maximum penalties. The proposed law comes shortly after MI5, the UK’s domestic intelligence and security agency, warned that a Chinese agent with ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had infiltrated Parliament. The UK is no stranger to disinformation controversies, as evidenced by alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum vote that saw the UK leave the European Union. A “Russia Report” later released by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee in July 2020 found that the UK government and intelligence services had made no real assessment of Russia’s attempts to get into the country, despite evidence that could have proved otherwise to interfere in the referendum.

While the new law aims to tackle the disinformation spread by all foreign actors, the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, explained that the law is specifically aimed at tackling the recent “hostile online wars” that have been taking place from Russia as the The war against Ukraine continues. Adds Dorries: “The invasion of Ukraine has shown once again how readily Russia can and will use social media to spread disinformation and lies about its barbaric actions, often aimed at the victims of its aggression.”

On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimar Putin announced that Russia was launching a “special military operation” in the Donbass region, a south-eastern region of Ukraine controlled by Russian separatist groups, and launched a full-scale invasion of the country. Within days, attacks by Russian forces were reported in major cities across Ukraine, including Berdyansk, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Sumy and the capital, Kyiv. Russia was immediately accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as illegal warfare and indiscriminate attacks on densely populated civilian areas in Ukraine.

As a result of international condemnation of its actions, the Russian government launched a state-controlled disinformation campaign to justify the illegal invasion of Ukraine. One of the main myths propagated by Russian actors in the media is that Ukraine has committed genocide (drawing unfounded parallels with Nazism and World War II) against the Russian-speaking population in the east of the country. There are many fabricated stories created to support this myth, best illustrated by the famous example of a Russian TV report accusing Ukrainian forces of crucifying a boy in eastern Ukraine early in the conflict. Fact-checkers quickly proved that the story was entirely fabricated.

Another notorious myth propagated by Russian actors justifies the invasion of Ukraine with NATO’s aggressive expansion, which has left Russia vulnerable and forced the country into defensive action. The reality is that no country or alliance plans to invade Russia, nor has any country threatened Russia. In fact, less than one-sixteenth of Russia’s land border is shared with NATO members. It is therefore illogical to present Russia, a country with the largest landmass and most nuclear weapons in the world, as one that is under serious threat.

Russia has a long history of spreading misinformation about Ukraine, especially during times of war between the two countries. The Internet Research Agency, a Russian network of paid “internet trolls,” spread misinformation during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. These efforts carried over into the 2016 US presidential election and continued until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Richard Stengel, a former secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, pointed out that Russia’s disinformation campaigns were not as sophisticated as we think: “It’s not that they were that good, it’s that we were so vulnerable.” Disinformation is always looking for some kind of biased audience. And people are receptive to that.”

A recent investigation conducted in late March 2022 found that new users of the social media application “TikTok” were exposed to Russian-made disinformation within 40 minutes of joining the network service. Levina, a woman from Kharkiv, one of the worst-hit areas in Ukraine, said she found many pro-Russian videos when she searched “Ukraine” in English, Russian, Ukrainian and Mandarin on TikTok, some of them staged looked.

While most social media apps have taken steps to remove Russian disinformation and restrict advertising in Russia, messaging app Telegram, which is widely used in both Ukraine and Russia, has taken no such action. The company’s co-founder, Pavel Durov, a native of Russia, has pledged to protect information about Ukrainian users, but remains neglectful of moderating, restricting or removing Russian disinformation such as fake news reports and deepfake videos allegedly of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

The past decade of managing user-generated content online has taught us that it’s incredibly difficult to determine whether a user is legitimate or a bad actor employed by a foreign government. Distinguishing these bad actors from legitimate users could result in massive amounts of legitimate online content or accounts facing huge fines as internet companies struggle to comply with the law.

In addition, there have been questions about the effectiveness of a total ban on Russian state media across the European Union in the past. In March 2022, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that the European Union plans to ban the Russian state broadcaster Russia Today (RT) and the state news agency Sputnik. In the announcement, von der Leyen pledged that the EU would develop the necessary technological tools to stop the channel from spreading “toxic and harmful disinformation” and “lies justifying Putin’s war” in Ukraine. However, given an EU ban on Russian state media, it is likely that Russia will retaliate with a ban on Western media. RT has no significant influence in Europe, while it is vital that Russians have access to Western media to debunk the lies and myths perpetuated by their domestic state-controlled media.

Christian Hoffmann, professor of communication management at the University of Leipzig, wrote on Twitter about Russian disinformation that “we overestimate the danger to us and underestimate the importance of Western media for the Russian people”.

Furthermore, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, wrote on Twitter that during the Cold War publications such as Soviet weekly newspaper and sputnik and Radio Moscow were heard in the UK: “I don’t think the West cared about them.”

Let it be known that Russia’s state-controlled disinformation campaign should be condemned by all countries that value freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was an unprovoked violation of international law, whatever myths the Kremlin would like to invent to justify that invasion. However, micromanaging user-generated content on social media is a tedious, incredibly challenging task that cannot be done with guaranteed accuracy. If this new law is passed by the UK Parliament, legitimate users of internet and social media companies who will struggle to comply with this new legislation could be wrongly hit with huge fines. In addition, a total ban on state-controlled Russian media has already led to retaliation from the Russian government, as the Moscow office of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle was shut down. The average Russian citizen risks being exposed to more Russian state propaganda as access to Western media is restricted to give them a different perspective on the war in Ukraine. The most effective way to combat the Russian disinformation campaign is for all countries that value press freedom to report accurately on Ukraine, continuing to share concrete facts about Russia’s illegal actions and debunking any myths the Russian government may be producing. Ultimately, the West is less vulnerable to the Russian disinformation campaign than the Russians. This means that the West has a responsibility to ensure that Russians are exposed to the non-state-controlled media, which provides them with accurate facts about their own country’s war against Ukraine.

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