Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Disinformation 2.0: Drawing Lessons from Britain’s 2019 General Election
Disinformation 2.0: Drawing Lessons from Britain’s 2019 General Election

Disinformation 2.0: Drawing Lessons from Britain’s 2019 General Election

February 13, 2020

Post by Will Marshall

Last December, as British voters headed to the polls for the third time in four years, the atmosphere was tinged by allegations of Russian interference across the political spectrum. While such allegations of foreign interference have poisoned British politics ever since the 2016 Brexit Referendum, Britain’s 2019 General Election clearly demonstrated that Russian disinformation campaigns have evolved with the political landscape. 

As public awareness of foreign influence operations has grown in Britain, Russian state-sponsored media has sought to propagate contradictory narratives and capitalize on instances of British figures unwittingly spreading disinformation to diminish public trust. Outlets push allegations of domestic disinformation into the spotlight to deflect attention from legitimate concerns over electoral interference by hostile foreign actors. These new Kremlin disinformation campaigns focusing on domestic actors offer valuable insights for U.S. policymakers ahead of November’s presidential election.

In British politics, as the issue of Russian disinformation campaigns has entered public discourse, accusations that political figures are “Russian agents” have become commonplace. Russian media outlets attempt to sow further discord by highlighting these allegations. 

For example, ahead of British elections, RT sought to draw attention to allegations in the British press that both Boris Johnson and his electoral rival Jeremy Corbyn were “Russian agents” after the former refused to release an Intelligence and Security Council Report into foreign electoral interference and the latter quoted “leaked” official documents. In Corbyn’s case, he quoted the documents unbeknownst to the fact that the documents in question originated from Russian sources. The implication of this coverage, of course, is that the “Russian agent” claim has become such a convenient political slur that the label is rendered meaningless.

Moreover, as awareness of the foreign disinformation tactics has grown in the U.K. over recent years, particularly in the wake of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, domestic actors have begun copying the Kremlin’s techniques. For example, a “non-partisan fact-checking page” on Twitter was later found to be created by none other than Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. Meanwhile, Labour-supporting Facebook groups spread rumors that November’s London Bridge terror attack was a Conservative “false flag” operation aimed at undermining Labour’s pro-immigrant stance ahead of the election. 

In response to this spate of domestic U.K. disinformation, Sputnik News crafted a narrative to discredit the democratic process, writing that domestic political actors push “conspiracy theories” using accusations of “Russian meddling” as a smokescreen for their own “deceptive electioneering schemes.” At the very least, this narrative attempts to create a moral equivalence between the West and Russia when it comes to spreading disinformation.

Disinformation campaigns manipulating domestic narratives discredit the genuine concerns about the extent of Russian influence in British politics by pushing target audiences to the point of apathy and calling into question the legitimacy of democratic institutions.

Britain’s 2019 General Election heralds a new frontier in the disinformation age, characterized by increasingly nuanced and intangible forms of disinformation. Combining these nuanced narratives ridiculing legitimate concerns about foreign electoral influence with more traditional forms of disinformation means that the next generation of disinformation has the potential to have even greater ramifications for the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.