Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods: The threat

How online trolls divided societies

Online falsehoods can undermine national sovereignty and harm national security.
Online falsehoods can undermine national sovereignty and harm national security.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

Report cites examples of how disinformation campaigns sought to undermine public trust

In 2016, two groups of protesters showed up in front of the Islamic Da'wah Centre in Houston, Texas, in support of two diametrically opposite causes.

Donning "White Lives Matter" T-shirts, the first group of 10 protested against what they called the Islamisation of America. The second group of 60, waving signs declaring "Muslims are welcome here", were there in counter-protest to the first.

Both sides were galvanised by their respective Facebook groups - Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America - and even urged to bring firearms to the protest, though Houston police made sure the protest did not turn violent.

What neither group knew was that a Russia-linked organisation known as the Internet Research Agency had been behind them both and, at the cost of a paltry US$200 (S$274), had succeeded in stirring up a very real security threat.

The case was one of several examples cited in the report of the Select Committee released yesterday to show how deliberate disinformation operations aim to widen social divides and undermine democratic processes and institutions.

Such online falsehoods can even undermine national sovereignty and harm national security, leading experts like Prague-based European Values think-tank representative Jakub Janda to call them a "national security threat".

The report summed up how the committee heard from disinformation researchers about how the campaigns allegedly conducted by Russia had posed a serious threat to countries including the United States, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and France.

 

INSIDIOUS METHODS

Disinformation operations can be so insidious, subtle and obscure that a target state may not know that it is under attack. An aggressor state may also mix falsehoods with real stories to gradually change opinions, making it difficult for the messages spread to be identified as being part of a disinformation operation.

THE SELECT COMMITTEE, citing examples of disinformation operations in its report.

SINGAPORE TARGETED

The threat of disinformation is posed not only by one country... Singapore has been and can expect to be subject to foreign disinformation operations. The committee was also informed at the confidential briefing which it received from a security agency that Singapore has indeed been the subject of foreign, state-sponsored disinformation operations.

THE SELECT COMMITTEE

In another example, known Russian trolls ran Twitter and Instagram accounts about the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings, widening the divide between each side.

For instance, some trolls spread the message that activists working on the Black Lives Matter movement who disrespected the American flag should "be immediately shot", while other trolls subtly incited violence by suggesting that "Black people have to (practise) an eye for an eye. The law enforcement officers keep harassing and killing us without consequences".

Other disinformation operations also sought to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, and to denigrate and harm presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's electability by spreading negative, untrue stories about her.

Mr Janda noted that "disinformation operations often have the goal of undermining public trust towards democratic institutions, and causing the public to lose trust in institutions like the free media and democratic political parties", said the report.

In Ukraine, Russian disinformation operations also found considerable success.

These operations "allegedly fuelled existing tensions between different communities, discredited Ukraine's standing in other EU countries, and even resulted in the loss of territorial sovereignty and lives in Ukraine".

For instance, Ukraine's relationship with the Netherlands was allegedly poisoned by Russian media outlets, which spread the false story that the Ukrainian military had shot down Flight MH17, which killed 193 Dutch citizens.

When the Netherlands held a referendum in April 2016 to approve a trade agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, few people turned out to vote, and two-thirds of those who did rejected the agreement.

Almost 60 per cent of the Dutch who voted against the trade pact opposed it because they believed the Ukrainian government was corrupt, according to a poll cited by a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official. Also, 19 per cent of them believed the unproven claim that Ukraine had shot down MH17.

Mr Ruslan Deynychenko, who is one of the founders of fact-checking organisation StopFake, argued that disinformation operations in Ukraine ultimately resulted in the loss of territorial sovereignty and Ukrainian lives by fuelling the annexation of Crimea and armed conflicts in Eastern Ukraine.

He cited how many of the Russian-linked fighters who fought on Ukrainian soil reportedly said they were motivated to fight by Russian television coverage of supposed Ukrainian "atrocities" against Russian-speaking citizens.

Mr Deynychenko said that such foreign disinformation campaigns by state actors "aim to weaken a country, reduce its ability to resist foreign aggression, change its foreign policy and create conditions for its inclusion in a foreign country's sphere of influence", added the report.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2018, with the headline 'How online trolls divided societies'. Print Edition | Subscribe