Parliament: Foreign countries hit by hostile information campaigns

Then presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron at a campaign rally in Paris during the 2017 French presidential election. Foreign actors leaked hacked data from Mr Macron's campaign just two days before the second round of voting.
Then presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron at a campaign rally in Paris during the 2017 French presidential election. Foreign actors leaked hacked data from Mr Macron's campaign just two days before the second round of voting.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

In Parliament yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong described how foreign actors sought to interfere with the domestic politics of countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and France.

United States

A foreign hostile information campaign sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and undermine democracy.

HOW: Fake social media accounts were used to impersonate real Americans, and to infiltrate and influence society. The accounts spread falsehoods and false narratives on divisive socio-political issues such as race, gun control and immigration.

Bots, or autonomous programs, along with digital advertisements were used by the foreign actor to amplify its reach and viewpoints rapidly, giving the impression that such views were popular.

Two fake Facebook accounts with opposing ideologies were cultivated, and a protest and counter-protest were organised at the same place and time, leading real American protesters to show up.

REACH: Over two years, about 126 million US Facebook users were exposed to content generated by the foreign operation. The campaign polarised and generated deep suspicion in American society and against its institutions.

United Kingdom

Domestic grievances were exploited to turn the British against UK and European Union institutions and policies in the referendum on Brexit.

HOW: Social media, bots and fake accounts were used to spread false claims. A steady stream of anti-immigration falsehoods by foreign-linked social media accounts made people feel threatened and built a narrative of a British government that failed to protect its citizens.

REACH: A study suggested that more than 150,000 foreign-linked accounts tweeted more than 45,000 pro-Brexit messages in the last 48 hours of the campaign.

France

Foreign actors tried to interfere with the 2017 French presidential election.

HOW: Just two days before the second round of voting, 9GB of data hacked from then presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron's campaign was leaked online.

REACH: In just 3 ½ hours, the leak was tweeted 47,000 times, with some suspicious Twitter accounts, likely bots in action, posting more than 150 tweets an hour.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2019, with the headline 'Foreign countries hit by hostile information campaigns'. Print Edition | Subscribe