[Relevant document: Twelfth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of Session 2016-17, Lessons learned from the EU Referendum, HC496.]
A considerable number of Members wish to speak in this debate. There will be three Front-Bench speeches to boot towards the end and therefore I think that I can say with some confidence that the opening speech by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), a very senior denizen of the House and formerly Deputy Leader of the House, will not exceed 15 minutes.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Russian interference in UK politics and society.
I will indeed seek to stay within your limit, Mr Speaker, and hope to gain some credit for it at some point in the near future.
This is a very welcome opportunity to debate this subject, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making the time available and the colleagues who supported the bid. I am pleased that we have a very good representation of senior Members here who have a long-standing interest in Russia.
The premise of this debate is that the UK is at risk of neglecting the threat that Russia poses. I argue that Russia is a clear and present danger and presents a threat to our democracy. Some may consider that to be an alarmist statement, but I hope to explain why, in my view, it is not. I will not be able to cover, in the 15 minutes available, all areas of concern, such as the impact of dirty Russian money in the UK and the UK Government’s apparent unwillingness to hunt it down, in relation to Magnitsky in particular; the extent to which the energy industry is vulnerable to Russian takeovers or leverage; or the appropriateness of the London Stock Exchange floating the EN+ Group. I suspect that other Members will pick up on those issues.
Why do I make this alarmist statement about Russia? First, clearly, there have been attempts by the Russians to influence the outcome of a number of elections. According to the Henry Jackson Society, there is not one smoking gun, but it is a case of joining up the dots, and Russia has a history of interference. The threat is not new; it has been around for a decade, especially, for instance, in the Estonian and Georgian elections in 2008 and 2009. Of course there was the well-publicised Russian interference mainly in the period post the Scottish independence referendum, when they tried to discredit the result of the election.
In the US, we have seen the most famous example of cyber-interference through the activities of the Internet Research Agency, which has spent more than $2 million on activity in America alone over the past two years, and that funding was directly authorised from the Kremlin. This pattern of behaviour suggests that Russia will also have interfered in the EU referendum.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to this interference as having taken place over the last decade. Has this not been the pattern of behaviour ever since the Bolshevik coup 100 years ago?
As I said earlier, I only have 15 minutes in which to contribute to the debate. Although I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we could go back a lot further, perhaps he could do so in his speech, if he makes one. I am focusing only on recent activity.
Information emerged just last month about hundreds of fake Twitter accounts, probably run from St Petersburg. Research at the University of Edinburgh in relation to the EU referendum showed that at least 419 fake accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of just under 3,500 times, although that was mostly after the referendum had taken place, rather than before. Meanwhile, research by City, University of London from October showed that there was a
“13,500-strong Twitter bot army”
present on the social media site around the time of the referendum, and in the four weeks before the vote, those accounts posted no fewer than 65,000 tweets about the referendum, showing a “clear slant” towards the leave campaign. However, there was no mention in that report of any specific Russian involvement.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on leading this debate. Does he agree that part of the reason that most of the hard evidence seems to come only from Twitter is that Facebook does not co-operate as it should in order to get to the root of these problems?
As the hon. Gentleman probably expects, I will discuss Facebook shortly, including some negative and positive things about its activities.
I should say that I am not attacking the Russians here; I am attacking the Russian Government. Of course, some things that the Russian Government or people associated with them might have been involved with may, indeed, be also activities that other state actors are conducting, so this is not just about Russia, although that is clearly the subject of the debate.
The United States has a gaping vulnerability to disinformation operations carried out by Russia and other malicious actors across the social media environment. In the USA, just one account from the troll factory in St Petersburg managed to amass more than 120,000 followers, interacted with the Trump campaign leaders, and was quoted in newspapers such as the Washington Post as a voice of the American right. Is the Minister happy that the UK has adequate defences against such interference here?
The simple truth is that although Arron Banks and Nigel Farage may be Putin fans, President Putin is certainly not a friend of this country. Russia would only have interfered in the EU referendum or any other elections here in order to damage the security of the UK and, indeed, the EU.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a brilliant point, but has he noticed that the American national security strategy—published this week—explicitly recognises this threat, whereas our national security strategy does not?
That is a very good point, which I will come back to. The Minister now has advance notice that he needs to be prepared to answer that question, because it is clearly a source of concern.
There is no soft power in Putin’s eyes and, as far as he is concerned, the use of social media to interfere in foreign states is a vital, weaponised tool. The covert interference I referred to is supplemented by more overt attempts to create a media counter-narrative. I am now talking about RT. The RT chief editor, Margarita Simonyan, is on the record comparing RT to the Ministry of Defence, saying in 2008:
“We were fighting the information war against the whole of the Western world”.
She referred to “the information weapon”, which is used in “critical moments”, and said that RT’s task in peacetime is to build an audience, so they can fight the information war better next time. Not surprisingly, therefore, Chatham House and the Henry Jackson Society see RT as a tool of destabilisation from the Kremlin.
Members will know that RT was found in breach by Ofcom in September 2015 for stories about Assad and chemical weapons. However, as I understand it, Ofcom has not always enforced sanctions as and when appropriate. According to the Library, Sputnik has never been found in breach by Ofcom. Ofcom imposed 84 sanctions against 57 broadcasters in the 10 years up to March 2017—RT was not the subject of a sanction during that time—and found broadcasters in breach of the broadcasting code more than 2,500 times
I am certainly not advocating shutting down RT, and I do not think anyone else is. I just want to ensure that it abides by the broadcasting rules and that appropriate action is taken by Ofcom every time it does not. Is the Minister happy with Ofcom’s actions? Does it consistently pursue RT for breaches in the way he would like? As an aside, I would like Ofcom to be much more active in pursuing a number of other TV channels that are broadcast here, in particular when threats are made to the Ahmadi Muslim community on some of those channels.
No British parliamentarian should be taking money from RT. In fact, I would go one step further and say that, frankly, no British parliamentarian should appear on RT. The only exception to that rule might be if they have complete control and are completely unedited—if they can go on the channel and say what they want, knowing that it will not be chopped, edited and cut by RT. Apart from that, no one here or in the House of Lords should ever appear on that channel. The only time that RT ever contacts me is when I have said something critical about the Government. Well, I am happy to say critical things about the Government on the BBC, but RT is trying to create an agenda that is about attacking the Government at every turn, and I will not facilitate that process.
The next issue is the question of whether the Russians are infiltrating or leaking content from political party systems. Well, we know what they did regarding the Democrats. Incidentally, they also hacked the Republicans, but they only released the information on the Democrats. We also know that they attempted to infiltrate Macron’s team by setting up a number of websites with pseudo-official titles that would email Macron’s members of staff, trying to get them to click on links and provide back-door access to their systems. As I understand it, Macron managed to defeat that, mainly by inserting some fake news into the content that the Russians were trying to access so that the story was demolished because of the inconsistencies within it.
As Members will know, Monsieur Macron had a more aggressive and muscular stance towards Russia than any other parties in that French presidential election, and I believe that that is why he was targeted in a way in which the others were not. As I understand it, the other French political parties were targeted, but the Russians were clearly interested in releasing information that related to Macron in particular. Mr Putin has said that these hackers may not be associated with the Government and that they may be “patriotic” hackers. Well, they may be patriotic hackers as far as he is concerned, but one has to suspect that they have the Government’s endorsement, because I am sure that the Russian Government could clamp down on these so-called patriotic hackers if they wanted to do so.
I am trying to make my questions very clear because I know that the officials in the Box can then provide a written answer for the Minister to read out and get on the record straightaway, so I have another easy question for him. Will he consider making UK political parties part of the critical national infrastructure, and what are the implications of taking such a step?
To be able to ascertain the level of threat, we have to assess it accurately, otherwise I risk coming across as a conspiracy theorist. I know that I do already in relation to Brexit, but I do not want to become the person known for conspiracy theories in this place. The difficulty we have is that we do not really know the extent of the activity because, frankly, no one has investigated it properly yet. It is only when that has been done that we will know. I regret that it took so long for the Intelligence and Security Committee to be reconstituted, but I welcome the fact that it has stated that Russia will be a topic that it will focus on. Does the Minister think that the Committee should give priority to the subject? Would he also want the ISC to work effectively with the Electoral Commission so that it can go to places that the Electoral Commission cannot? An ISC inquiry would help us to establish accurately the level of threat.
To pick up on an earlier intervention, we know that Facebook was asked by the Electoral Commission to look at examples of paid ads from Russia, but it was not asked to look at the use of bots or trolls, so the picture we are going to get will, at best, be very incomplete. The response the commission has had—that the Russians apparently spent £7.50 on advertising—does not quite sound right to me.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. We are not talking just about a few Twitter or Facebook accounts with no picture avatar and 10 followers. The David Jones account had more than 100,000 followers and was listed as one of the most influential Twitter accounts during the last general election. It purports to be from Southampton, yet it tweets exclusively in office hours in a Russian time zone. Surely the social media companies have a greater role to play in identifying fake accounts—which are pretending to be something they are not—for the integrity of the debate we should all enjoy online.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I do not know whether she has, but I have engaged in exchanges with David Jones—clearly, I will not continue to do so—because whoever he or she is was a very prolific tweeter during that campaign. So, yes, we need to be aware of those issues.
According to Facebook, neither the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, nor No. 10, nor the intelligence services have given it any advice about what it should be looking for. If that is correct, it concerns me, and I hope the Minister will respond to that point.
I think the Americans looked at 47 accounts, which were all provided to the Mueller inquiry by intelligence agencies, but—the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—our agencies have offered, I think, only one. The other risk we have to be careful of, though, is that money was transferred onshore—the Electoral Commission is now investigating that—so some of the illicit money may have come from UK onshore accounts.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That is another aspect of this issue that I am not going to be able to dwell on at great length in the few minutes that remain.
Facebook is doing work on ad transparency, and I welcome that. Personally, I would be comfortable with having the equivalent of a “printed and published” on the political ads that I place on Facebook. Such measures would help people to understand who was actually promoting themselves. I wonder whether the Minister would support that suggestion.
There is also the issue of authentication. I and, I suspect, every Member here have a blue tick on Twitter, so we have been confirmed as being real people. Maybe Facebook should do something similar to authenticate people with Facebook accounts so that we know that everyone is a genuine person, rather than someone sitting in an office block on the outskirts of Moscow preparing fake accounts. I hope the Minister will agree with that point as well.
We need to resource our response appropriately, and I have concerns—I certainly had concerns when I was a Minister and had dealings with it—that the Electoral Commission does not, in fact, have the resources to deal with this issue. Dealing with activity abroad is clearly not within its remit, and it would not have any expertise to do that, so we need to hear how it can access that expertise. The Minister is nodding, so hopefully he will be able to clarify that issue. I hope he is confident that the Electoral Commission has the necessary resources and expertise, or can at least access them.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I ask him to emphasise the point about the resources that are needed to investigate. There is a danger that we are sidetracked into the social media side of this, when, ultimately, the more important thing is the money. Does he believe that the Electoral Commission is sufficiently equipped, resourced and empowered to properly follow the money and to ascertain where donations come from, whether the original donors really own that money and whether the agencies and the Electoral Commission need more powers to properly track the finance and the politics?
My short answer is, no, I do not think it is. Clearly, that needs to be acted on. It is not just about political parties; it is also about tracking the money associated with political movements, such as the leave campaign or—this may not be controversial for the right hon. Gentleman—Momentum, so that we actually have some clarity about where the money is coming from and so on. We would all benefit if there was more transparency.
Until we get a change in mindset among these bodies, additional resources will not have the necessary impact. These bodies have to have the will and the necessary policy framework, and action on the resources may follow that if they are not sufficient. That applies not just to the Electoral Commission, but right the way across the agencies of Government.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. Yes, this debate is partly about giving them the will and telling them that they have the backing of Members of Parliament on both sides of the House to take the action that is needed.
I will conclude by reading out the few questions I have left for the Minister—I have been generous in taking interventions. First, as I understand it, the Government have not tasked the intelligence and security services with investigating Russian subversion as a high priority. Russia is a tier 1 threat, but the six-point national security strategy does not mention defence against Russian interference in our political system, so will the Minister press for that to be changed?
On the funding of political movements, does the Minister agree, following the intervention from the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), that financial accountability for political movements must be improved as well? On the Mueller inquiry, will the Minister confirm that the UK Government will proactively seek and supply any relevant information to the inquiry, rather than just sit there and wait to be approached? Finally, social media companies are, on the positive side, keen to work with the Government to try to close some of the loopholes we have referred to today.
We need to make sure that Russia is held publicly to account, whether that is through Ofcom or through Ministers, when they know that this has happened, making it clear that the Russians have been actively hacking some of our systems—as they did in relation to the NHS hacking by North Korea. The ISC also needs to come forward with its report.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to raise this issue, and I hope the House will give the Minister the oomph he needs to go away and ensure that the respective Departments—one of the problems is that this is an FCO, Cabinet Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport issue—will grab this bull by the horns and make sure that Russia, because of the threat it presents to the UK, is dealt with with the degree of seriousness that is required.
Order. As Mr Speaker said, there are a number of colleagues wishing to contribute to this debate and to the later debate, so I am afraid I am going to have to impose an immediate five-minute time limit. I would urge colleagues to be very aware that, if they take interventions, it is likely that that will reduce the time for others.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), and I congratulate him on securing the debate. At the end of his remarks, he rightly raised important issues around the prioritisation of this issue for the intelligence services and the Government’s co-operation with the Mueller inquiry, and I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about those questions later.
This debate feels very timely. On Tuesday, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee held our first oral evidence session on fake news and disinformation, looking in particular at Russian activity in Catalonia around the referendum. My staff tweeted a link from my Twitter account to where people could watch the Committee hearing. According to an article in The Times today, a Russian-language bot account then responded to my tweet sharing the link to the hearings with the threat that we should be careful because we can all be wiped out in a single stroke—I do not know whether that was just the Select Committee or the entire nation, but, nevertheless, it was interesting.
On a previous occasion, when I happened to share a link to a discussion I had had with Hugo Rifkind, based on the facts of the US Senate investigation into Russian activity during the presidential election, the official Twitter account of the Russian embassy in London compared me to Joseph Goebbels in seeking to spread big lies about what Russia is doing. Let us not be under any illusion that Russia is, not just anecdotally but in a systematic way, using information as a weapon of war and seeking to intervene in the democratic processes of other countries. It is doing that to undermine people’s confidence in public institutions and to cause division and hatred, and it is part of its strategy of breaking down multilateralism and co-operation between countries in western Europe. That is what Russia is doing.
In the short time that I have available, I want to focus specifically on the role of the social media companies and the way in which they are responding to the different investigations taking place in the UK. My Select Committee wrote to Facebook asking it not only to give evidence of paid-for advertising through its service during the referendum and the last general election, but to identify activity by fake accounts across the platform. Much of the activity in America was based on pages being set up to promote links to sites where fake news and disinformation were shared and fake events organised. It is important that we understand the breadth of what is being done.
Facebook’s response so far—certainly its charge that a tiny amount of money is being spent in this country—is not based on an analysis of what is going on across its platform; it is based simply on looking at the accounts identified as part of the American investigation. Those accounts were given to Facebook by the US intelligence services. Facebook had never proactively looked on its site for evidence of this activity. At the moment, its position in this country is that it is refusing to conduct that research itself. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, it must be possible for it to look at the geographical location of accounts, the characteristics of the accounts from where information is shared—
That is how it makes money.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It must be able to understand how to target users with information based on what it thinks they are interested in and where that information is coming from. It could conduct its own preliminary research to look for the characteristics of fake accounts and disinformation accounts linked to Russian agencies that are based on its platform. At the moment, it is refusing to do that.
Facebook’s last quarterly profits were nearly $4 billion. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it could afford to conduct the research if the will were there to do so?
I absolutely agree. I noticed on a recent investor call that Mark Zuckerberg warned Facebook investors that dealing with these issues would have a direct impact on the bottom line. I am glad that he said that, but I would like to see him using that money. I do not see any evidence of the company putting resource into trying to tackle this issue.
At the moment, Facebook’s position in the UK is that it was only responding to questions put to it by the Electoral Commission. That has a much narrower focus because of the Electoral Commission’s exact remit. Facebook is not answering questions put to it by the Select Committee asking for more evidence of Russian-linked activity across the site, including in pages, group accounts and profiles, not just restricted to paid-for advertising. We have a right to receive information from Facebook, and it could conduct such research. It proactively conducted its own research looking at the activity of fake accounts during the French presidential election. That led to the deletion of more than 30,000 accounts, pages and profiles. Facebook did that itself. If it can do it in France, it can do it in the UK too, but currently it will not.
If Facebook’s position is that it will respond only to official intelligence directing it towards fake activity, then we need to be working to do that too. Our intelligence services need to be on the lookout, if that is the only trigger open to us to get Facebook to act.
Sadly, my hon. Friend was not at this week’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, where the national security adviser said that such activity was not the main priority, and, indeed, just spoke generally about security threats. Does my hon. Friend agree that it should be absolutely one of the top priorities?
Absolutely. It must be a major priority. We have to realise that Russia is engaged in a multi-layered strategy to cause instability in the west, and that fake news and disinformation is one of the tools it uses.
It was interesting to hear in the Select Committee this week that during the Catalan referendum, Russian news agencies RT and Sputnik were the fourth largest source of information, all of it supporting the separatist cause.
I grew up in cold war Germany. As I have said, these things have been going for decades. When our political group referred to Russia funding German terrorism, we were seen as paranoid fantasists, yet when the wall came down our fears were reconfirmed when the Stasi files were opened. There must be national recognition across the board, and people need to see this as a real threat.
Absolutely. People must see it as a real threat.
It is not enough for the tech companies just to sit back and say, “We won’t do anything unless you come to us with the evidence. We’re not prepared to conduct our own research on our site about how people are using it and why they are using it.”
I do not believe that individual users of these platforms understand the way in which they can be targeted and the reason they receive the information that they receive. That creates confusing echo chambers, where people are not exposed to a plurality of views but systematically targeted—not just with fake news but with hyper-partisan content. It is being done for propaganda reasons and political reasons by foreign actors. If we do not see that as a threat to the democratic institutions of this country, and a threat to the western way of life, we are deluding ourselves.
The tech companies need to be doing a lot more. I have focused a lot on Facebook, but the same issues apply to Twitter. Twitter has also analysed accounts and information given to it by the US intelligence services. More academic work has been done on analysing those accounts because Twitter is a more open platform and it is possible to do that; in the case of Facebook, which is closed, it is not. The reason much of the interest has been in activity on Twitter is just that it is a more open platform, not because Twitter is being used in such a way and Facebook is not. The tech companies need to do more, and it has to be a higher priority for the intelligence services too.
It gives me enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). I commend him for the work he is doing. I wrote to his Committee at the beginning of this year suggesting just such an inquiry, and I am absolutely delighted that it is doing one.
When I began asking questions about this issue more than a year ago, it is fair to say that I was treated as a bit of a crank. I am very pleased to say that we now have multiple investigations and inquiries, including that of the hon. Gentleman’s Committee. We have the ISC investigation, multiple investigations by the Electoral Commission, and the Mueller investigations. However, what strikes me, and rather worries me, is that these are all being carried out by independent or parliamentary bodies, not by the Government, who are responsible for maintaining our security and defences, and have the power to get to the truth at the bottom of all this.
I have already put much of the evidence and allegations into the public domain, and time is limited, so I will restrict my remarks to a series of questions for the Minister. I hope that he will begin to address and explain what seems to be the Government’s insouciance in dealing with this problem. Why are the Government not investigating this threat themselves but leaving it to others such as parliamentary Committees and judicial inquiries—foreign judicial inquiries, at that?
The central question that several hon. Members have already asked is this: have the Government tasked our intelligence and security services with investigating Russian subversion as a high priority? The information I have from my sources is that they have not. If that is the case, why not? Russia is classified as a tier 1 threat, but the six-point national security strategy does not even mention defence against Russian interference in our political system. That is not good enough. I would be grateful if the Minister could listen to these questions, or at least his officials could, so that they can pass him the answers.
What are the Government doing to support the work of the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe, who has given an admirably robust response to the completely inadequate response from the big tech companies showing nothing short of contempt for Parliament? He needs the Government and the intelligence services to support the very important work that he is doing. What are the Government themselves doing to get the tech companies to reveal Russian ad purchases and make it easier to identify and block troll, bot and other Russian-backed accounts on social media? What discussions have the Government had with UK media companies about adopting the kind of voluntary agreement that was reached very successfully in France not to report material that had been accessed by illegal hacking?
What co-operation are the Government giving to the Mueller inquiry? When the Foreign Secretary last answered a question from me on this, he said that he had received no request for help from Mueller. However, given that several of the senior figures who have already been indicted by Mueller conducted their central activities here in Britain, it is completely inconceivable to me that there could not have been contacts between the US investigators and authorities and the British authorities. So either our own agencies are not keeping the Foreign Secretary in the loop, or he misspoke in his reply to me. Perhaps the Minister would like to set the record straight.
I have tabled several written questions to various Government Departments about contacts between Ministers and the Legatum Institute, and the replies are still outstanding. I would be grateful if the Minister could chase up those replies.
Will the Minister look into, or ask our intelligence and security services to look into, the roles of Vladimir Antonov, who is subject to an EU arrest warrant, and Roman Dubov, and any relationship they may have had in the past with the former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage? Would he care to comment on reports that broke just before this debate started that a man who has been arrested in Ukraine on suspicion of being a Russian spy was photographed with our Prime Minister in Downing Street back in the summer?
This question is more for our party leaders and Whips than the Minister, but surely it is time for British politicians to stop making useful idiots of themselves by appearing on and taking money from Kremlin propaganda outfits such as Russia Today and Sputnik. A lot of the ties between the Putin regime, the far right and the alt-right are well documented, but it pains me to say that there are still some useful idiots on the left in British and international politics. My message to them is that Russia is a nasty, nationalistic, ultra-conservative and corrupt kleptocracy. It is racist and homophobic, and it makes no secret of the fact that it wants to undermine our democracy. It this debate does anything to give the Government a bit of oomph in tackling this threat and get some reality into our political discourse, it will have been very worth while indeed.
We are coming up to Christmas, one of the great feasts of the Christian year that marks the birth of Christ and the bringing of hope to all mankind, but we should recall another event, which is much more recent in time but which happened more than a quarter of a century ago: the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991. When I was elected to this House, 270 million people lived under the direct totalitarian rule of the Soviet Union, with no elections of any meaningful value; and a further 137 million lived in the other countries of the eastern bloc in Europe. On 26 December 1991, Gorbachev went on television to announce that the long nightmare was over. As he went to sign into effect the dissolution of the Soviet Union, his communist-manufactured pen did not work, and he had to borrow a working pen from the CNN camera crew who were filming the event.
We should all believe in the sovereignty of nations and the general principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. None the less, I think that we should be proud of the part that this country played in the downfall of the USSR and of communism in Europe. Alongside St John Paul II, President Reagan and our own Margaret Thatcher, we were instrumental in resisting totalitarianism and inspiring the captive peoples of Europe to stand up against their communist overlords. At the same time, the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Home Secretary were going on motorbike tours of East Germany. If we might have been accused of interfering in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union then, I think we can be proud of it.
Let us remember to have a sense of proportion. In those years, there were dozens and dozens of Soviet divisions in East Germany and Poland, posing a direct threat to our freedom and democracy, but today we are talking about alleged Russian interference in UK politics and society. We hear things such as “undermining our democracy”, but can we look at the evidence?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am about to deal with the evidence, but of course I will give way.
Did not the head of the Federal Security Service say only this week that it sees itself as the spiritual heir of the Cheka and the KGB? Does that not tell us all we need to know?
I am not seeking to defend the Putin regime. There is much in Russia that is not perfect. I was a member of the Council of Europe delegation to the presidential elections, and I know it is not a perfect democracy, but let us keep a sense of proportion. So much progress has been made, and Russia is an infinitely freer and better place than it was under the Soviet Union. It is not perfect, it is not pleasant and it is not our sort of democracy, so I do not defend the Putin regime, but I want to get a sense of proportion in this debate.
Let us look at the evidence from the Oxford Internet Institute, which is part of Oxford University. It investigated more than 100 Russian-linked Twitter accounts and their activity in the run-up to our EU referendum. The results of the investigation are worth noting. It found that
“(1) Russian Twitter accounts shared to the public, contributed relatively little to the overall Brexit conversation, (2) Russian news content was not widely shared among Twitter users, and (3) only a tiny portion of the YouTube content was of a clear Russian origin.”
The fact is that the majority of the UK population—to a significant extent—is not on Twitter.
I am familiar with the study that my hon. Friend is referring to, but I would just say that it is very narrowly focused. There is also evidence of more than 13,000 bot accounts on Twitter that were believed to be linked to Russia and were deleted very shortly after the referendum. There is a lot that we do not know about this matter, and we need the tech companies to co-operate with us fully so that we understand the scale of it.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee, and of course we must keep a sense of proportion. I am quoting from a well-established institute and I want to give another point of view in this debate, which I think is fair enough.
I mentioned that the majority of the UK population is not on Twitter. Of the Twitter users, the majority do not even log in daily. Facebook did an investigation into the notorious Russian “troll factory” called the Internet Research Agency and found that its advertisements reached fewer than 200 people in Britain during the referendum campaign. If that is the best Russia can do to overturn our long-established parliamentary democracy, I think we can probably rest at ease.
I will not give way; I have got to finish now. The paranoid tendency to see a red under every bed is very much alive, albeit changed, and there is an explanation for such paranoia. Look at Trump’s victory, and look at the success of Brexit in the referendum. Things are not going the way of the liberals’ world view, and they cannot accept that the people—the workers, even—are abandoning their ideology, presuming that they ever agreed with it in the first place. The left knows that the people are never wrong, so when the people are wrong, as with Brexit or Trump, the left has a psychological need to find some excuse for the people’s misbehaviour.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not give way to the hon. Lady. Russia is that excuse today. Perhaps the reality is that voters might not agree with the established liberal consensus on Brexit. Perhaps voters in Britain, America, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere have legitimate concerns that they feel are not being addressed. Those concerns must be addressed, and we in this House must be the ones to address them. Such was the wisdom shown by Disraeli and others in expanding the electorate. Such is the British constitution that it adapts, evolves and bends instead of breaking.
The fact is that the referendum was a free and fair vote of the British people. If there was foreign interference, it was so ineffective that I doubt it made any difference at all to the final result. It was not the work of foreigners somewhere distant, plugging away at computers and unleashing Twitterbots. Authority comes from above but power comes from below, and it came from the people in our referendum. If we do not accommodate the legitimate concerns of ordinary people, we undermine the very foundations of our parliamentary democracy. We might find ourselves being replaced and irrelevant, as Mr Gorbachev did on 26 December 1991.
There has always been, on the left of British politics, a group of useful idiots for authoritarian communism, and it has included people who have been very sensible on other issues. I refer Members to “Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?” written by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the 1930s. There has also always been, on the far right of politics, a group of admirers of the strong leader, the national identity and the patriotic purpose of the Russian, and even the Soviet, regime. They loved Uncle Joe, and many of them today like Vladimir Putin.
Putin has, over recent years, tried to develop a relationship with various groups in Europe to further his own national interest and ideological goals. He has used, in that process, a man—an ideologist—from the far right who has connections with the American alt-right and with people including Nick Griffin, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, who all attended conferences in Russia. That man is Aleksandr Dugin, and Members can google him and read about his vile ideology of trying to create some kind of Eurasian monolith based on authoritarianism and the crushing of religious minorities.
That is the essence of the nature of the Russian state. How is it going to develop? Putin has used that man, who was at one point referred to as “Putin’s Rasputin”. There is some concern in many other European countries about this type of work. On 25 November 2016, the European Parliament carried a resolution, by a very large majority, referring to Russia’s use of
“a wide range of tools…to challenge democratic values”
and to “divide Europe”. Different tools have been used, including the interference in elections, which has already been mentioned, and the attempted coup in Montenegro. The Hungarian regime of Orban has been given financial support via various forms of investment. It acts as an ideological Trojan horse in the European Union against the sanctions on Russia that are the result of the invasion and annexation of Ukraine.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. I really believe it is important to be aware of beginnings. I celebrated the fall of the Berlin wall, having lived in cold war Germany and I hoped that Russia had changed, but when I went back to Russia only a year ago, people told me that, unfortunately, Russia was facing the same threats and problems that it faced during the cold war, so—
Order. When the hon. Lady makes an intervention, she needs to be brief, because there is a lot of pressure on time.
Yes, absolutely. There is an idea that there was a fantastic, miraculous transformation in 1989-90, but, sadly, that was not the case. There is an authoritarian kleptocracy—that word was used earlier—and a regime under which opposition leaders are locked up, journalists disappear or are killed, and polonium is used to murder people on the streets of London. The Russian system of government is not a democracy in any sense that we would understand. Everybody knows that Vladimir Putin is going to be President until 2024 and that this regime will continue, and that is not democracy.
There are very serious flaws in that society, but even more serious is the attempt to undermine cohesion and to sow discord among Europeans in our societies. In the time I have left, I want to mention the kind of tweets put out by the Russian embassy. It put out a picture of a European Union stockade on fire, with a giant Russian bear, and the flag flying over the EU stockade was the LGBT one. That tells us all we need to know about the ideology of the Russian Government and the Russian state. These are not fringe elements; this is the core of the Government.
I refer hon. Members to the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the last Parliament, which was published in March, and the Government response. We must look seriously at these questions. I do a lot of tweets, and I get quite a lot of trolls. Some of them can be identified by the fact that there are eight numbers after the name, because they are produced by algorithms and come at very odd times during the night. I often tweet back, “What’s the weather like in Moscow?” The fact is that we all need to recognise that they are trying to interfere in our politics and to create discord. We need to be vigilant, and the Government must do much more.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this debate.
There are some very serious issues to discuss and to bring into the public domain, but I think we need to keep a sense of proportion. I agree with the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) that Russia has not changed its character fundamentally since the days of the Tsar. It has always been somewhat paranoid about the outside world and aggressively defensive, and we see the same characteristics today. However, to describe, as he put it, “the kind of tweets put out by the Russian embassy” in the same terms as the threat we faced during the cold war is to get things a little out of proportion. There are serious issues to discuss, but we should do so responsibly. I want to explain what I mean.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am very reluctant to take up extra time, but I will briefly give way.
The hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand that Russia, all the way through, has a full-spectrum response. During the cold war, it had all the stuff in the cultural areas and hard power. Has he noticed the size of the recent exercises conducted by Russia in the Baltic? Russia does not see this as different. It is part of a full-spectrum approach.
I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, but the fact is that today’s Russia is a shadow of the power that was the former Soviet Union.
There is one important difference: although Russia’s conventional weaponry has been somewhat hollowed out, significant investment is going into it—there is significant investment in active measures—and it still has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Its destructive power is no worse than it was, but it has lost some conventional power, which in many ways makes the international situation more unstable.
I absolutely concur with what my hon. Friend says—I do not want to diminish it at all—but we need to keep cyber-warfare, particularly political interference, in perspective.
The Committee I chair, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, produced a report on “Lessons learned from the EU Referendum” in March. It touched on this issue, and if I may say so, it in fact did so well in advance of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). PACAC will also, I hope, conduct an inquiry on the 2017 general election, and we will continue to investigate these issues.
I should declare a tangential interest in that I was a director of Vote Leave at the time of the referendum. I can attest that we were aware of a certain amount of odd cyber- activity, and we speculated that the crash of the online voter registration system was the result of a cyber-attack. This was and continues to be disputed by the Government, but whether or not it is true, the Government need to create more resilient systems.
PACAC’s report highlighted the need not only to consider the potential for foreign interference in elections or referendums, but to examine the real nature of this potential interference. It found that, while the UK and the US understanding of “cyber” is predominantly technical, Russia and China use what is termed a “cognitive” approach, based on understanding mass psychology and how to exploit the fears of individuals. They are less interested in the apparent intended effect of their activities—whether they alter the balance of the debate or affect peoples’ voting intentions is entirely secondary—but are much more interested in being seen to be able to do what they do. They want to be seen tweaking the nose of the west, flaunting their capability, acting illegally and proving what they can do, and to show that we cannot stop them doing so.
These countries want us to react, and this creates something of a dilemma. They want us to hold debates such as this one. President Putin is manipulating this debate: he will be chortling in the Kremlin at the fact that we are discussing these matters and putting Russia centre stage, because this is exactly what he wants. They see our reacting to this activity as evidence of their ability to control and manipulate us. It is also important for them to be able to report this to their domestic audience as evidence, however incredible it may seem to us, of their power and influence in the world. This has clear implications for what we understand by a cyber-attack, the nature of such cyber-attacks and how we respond both physically and politically. I commend the Prime Minister for adopting a tough stance on this and for the establishment of the national cyber-security centre in 2016, but we need to use this work to gain a better understanding of the real motivations behind it.
The Government published their response to PACAC’s report on the EU referendum in a Command Paper yesterday, and I very much welcome it. The Government say they are taking the issue of cyber-security extremely seriously: the centre played an important role in monitoring key systems for unusual activity in the run-up to the 2017 general election, and the Cabinet Office convened a dedicated monitoring and response cell throughout the election period to ensure that any risks emerging in the immediate run-up to and during the election were co-ordinated effectively. In their response to PACAC’s report, the Government say they will continue to work closely with the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators in assessing the threat to the UK’s democratic process and implementing further measures to mitigate the risks.
Although we can be assured that our paper-based voting system is much more difficult to manipulate than an electronic one, we remain vulnerable to the broader attempt to use social media in elections as a platform for influence. Further consideration should be given to the Electoral Commission’s recommendation in 2014 that the law be changed to require online campaign advertising to have the equivalent of an imprint. The control of offshore operators, however, is extremely difficult.
I encourage the Government to ensure that any efforts to assess the threat include an analysis of the motivations and approaches taken by key actors, and the level of threat that they represent. I encourage them to ensure that that work is translated into an effective and co-ordinated response, and further to our report, I call again on the Government to commit to presenting annual reports to Parliament on these matters.
We must avoid the temptation to overreact and start suggesting that massive changes to public opinion have been created by this relatively tiny amount of social media activity. Otherwise, we are playing exactly into what the Russians want—we are questioning the very processes that they want us to question, and asking the questions that they want to generate. We must avoid doing that because it is completely unnecessary.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this important debate. The world is interdependent in a way that it has never been before, and it is understandable that it creates insecurity and uncertainty when once intimate communities now become atomised. People are looking for solace in identity politics, and nationalism becomes the plaything of populists. Facebook and Twitter have become the populists’ perfect dwelling place, where the woes of the world can be expounded in advert form, and dogma in bite-sized chunks. Today that medium is just as likely to be used as a means of spreading lies, half-truths and quackery of all descriptions. Indeed, Facebook acknowledges that well over 100 million US citizens—a third of the US electorate—had seen Russian-promoted disinformation in the period leading up to the 2016 presidential elections.
In The Sunday Times in October, John Lanchester carried out an investigation into Facebook and said that Russia’s use of the media
“focused on American fragmentation, and sought to exacerbate the country’s social and political divides. It used Facebook’s algorithmic targeting to focus on what it already knew people thought, and gave them more of the same. It used falsehoods, knowing that the company had no real interest in weeding them out. It manipulated people’s feelings. The people behind that campaign had done a better job of studying Facebook’s innate amorality and potential for misuse than anyone in government.”
Russia, it seems, is expert at using social media to twist arguments to feed populists and sow division.
Investigations by journalists such as Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian have revealed links between Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum and UK society in general, and thousands of Twitter accounts based in Russia were active during that referendum. More importantly, Leave.eu is now being investigated by the Electoral Commission about the true origin of its funding. Other speakers can go into great detail about that, but I want to mention one or two things about Putin’s intentions.
Putin is a nationalist who will promote nationalist parties in the EU, which could lead to the fracture and fragmentation of European states and institutions. At the same time, he is a leader who is prepared to ignore the sovereignty of other countries such as Ukraine. He will use every device at his disposal to ensure that his opponents are divided and discontent, and that grievances are fed. He knows how to play to the tune of identity politics.
One reason why I was so opposed to Brexit was because I knew that by leaving the EU we would be playing the Russians’ game for them. A divided economic union on Russia’s doorstep would suit them nicely, and that is where we find ourselves today. With my work on the Defence Committee, I worry about Trump’s commitment to NATO and the kind of trade deal that we will get with a USA that puts America first. There is the question of our ability as a nation to defend ourselves adequately as we pursue a more independent defence strategy, because of a belief in some quarters that we can secure an independent trade strategy as a result of Brexit. That approach has consequences for our military defence capacity to ensure that we can secure trade links as a global trading power.
Defence strategists and experts I have talked to have said that we cannot continue to contribute as we do to NATO while pursuing an independent defence strategy. We cannot do both because we cannot afford to, and that is another win for Putin. What Putin wants—perhaps we are starting to see this now—is the great unravelling of old alliances and international institutions to his benefit. We cannot allow that to happen because, I believe, our way of life is at risk.
Liberal democracy is being challenged in a way that I do not think has happened since the 1930s. I do not believe that Putin wants a military conflict, but in the 21st century there is more than one way to confront perceived adversaries, and that includes cyber-attacks and disinformation that enters society under the radar. We must tighten up regulation around political advertising, including social media, and we must look more closely at the potential for foreign powers to fund our politics. We must ask more of social media organisations, because if they do nothing to tighten their regulations, the Government will have to step in. Politicians have a responsibility to take a step back and think afresh about what social media has actually created, and doing that would be to the benefit of our democracies.
Order. Due to the large number of interventions that colleagues have taken, which always has implications for others, after the next speaker I must reduce the time limit to four minutes.
In the light of what you have said, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will not take any interventions.
I wish to ask whether any hon. Member in the Chamber—other than perhaps the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar)—feels a flicker of recognition when they hear the names of the following organisations: the World Federation of Trade Unions, the International Union of Students, the World Federation of Scientific Workers, the World Federation of Democratic Youth, and —above all—the World Peace Council. Those were part of a magnificent array of Soviet international propaganda front organisations that plied their disreputable trade through half a century from the end of the 1940s right up until the downfall of the Soviet Union. They were well funded, very active and almost wholly—at least as far as the United Kingdom was concerned—ineffective, because they were clunky and did not really understand the way that British people and parliamentarians think and operate.
I have heard something in every speech and intervention made today with which I agreed. We are all on the same page. We all understand that Russia is not a modern constitutional democracy and that it will do everything within its power to promote its messages and undermine the messages of those whom it perceives to be its adversaries. I always hesitate to cite one of the most evil men who ever walked the face of the earth—Dr Joseph Goebbels—but he knew a thing or two about propaganda, and one of his central tenets was that the purpose of propaganda is not to change people’s minds; it is to find out what they already believe, and reinforce it.
There is a very good reason for that. Except when dealing with young minds that have not had a chance to form their value systems and opinions—that is a big and important exception—I have come to the conclusion, through working in this field for a long time before I first entered the House, that people are much more resistant to the effect of propaganda than they are given credit for when it comes to changing their minds. The effect of barrages of propaganda might be to dishearten them, but it will not generally convert them unless they are impressionable, and most people are not.
I said that I would not give way, and I am afraid that I will not out of consideration for others.
Let me follow up the argument that was developed by the hon. Member for Ilford South when he spoke about different stages in society. I think that, apart from failed states, there are three main types of society: totalitarian extremism, ruthless authoritarianism, and constitutional democracy. Sometimes, we have the choice between only the first and the second, because the third takes time to evolve.
The reason why the Russia of today, although dangerous, is not nearly as dangerous as the Soviet Union of yesterday is that it has moved largely from totalitarian extremism to ruthless kleptocratic authoritarianism.
The reason why totalitarian extremism is more dangerous is that it has an ideology that finds resonance in the target societies—for example, the ideology of the workers’ paradise. There are no fifth columnists of young British people who are bowled over by the masculinity, alleged or real, of Vladimir Putin, but there were plenty who were fooled by the concept of a workers’ paradise.
So by all means be careful and by all means recognise that Twitter can affect young impressionable minds, but remember one thing: to defend ourselves properly we need to defend ourselves in the field of cyber against cyber-attack on our infrastructure, rather than worrying too much about ineffective propaganda measures.
I admire the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and he said some good things, but ultimately I found his speech to be utterly naive and complacent. He cannot just say “Russia is a kleptocracy and there we are; that’s fine.” It is also a ruthless security state: it prevents elections; it prevents journalists from doing their proper jobs; it murders journalists; and it makes sure that journalists elsewhere in the world are put out of their jobs and are unable to scrutinise Russia properly.
Even the Russian embassy in the UK flouts every single one of the normal rules of an embassy. It wrote to Mr Speaker on a previous occasion to try to prevent a debate on Russia taking place. On other occasions, it has tweeted aggressively against several Members. It even tried to rig the election of the chair of the all-party group on Russia. One would think it had more important things to do. I am the present chair, and the former chair, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), is in his place on the Government Benches. He departed because he was so fed up with the way the Russian embassy was dealing with us.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) may say something about this later—he is more of an expert than I am—but the Russians are engaged in a form of hybrid warfare. It does not involve military weapons so much, although they are keen to continuously flex those muscles and we know, from Georgia and Ukraine and what has happened in Crimea, that they are territorially ambitious. I just want to explain one element of this hybrid warfare.
I asked a man called Ben Nimmo, who runs digital forensic research at the Atlantic Council, to look at MPs’ Twitter accounts, including those of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, me and others and analyse the attacks we had received. I and others—the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to this earlier—believe that some anonymous troll accounts are centrally organised from St Petersburg.
The pattern is that the accounts often pretend to be British, even though they might originally have been tweeting in Russian. They tend to tweet in bad English and at Russian times of day. They infiltrate the hard right to propagate and amplify views held by others—that relates to the point about Goebbels that was made earlier—and they ostentatiously, aggressively and with foul language attack critics of Putin. They support the Kremlin line on Syria, George Soros, the Olympic ban, Ukraine, the M17 flight and Senator McCain.
The accounts tag other factory troll accounts. For instance, @iatetwit attacked Lucy Fisher, the journalist at The Times who has written about this, and me. It looks like a normal account, but the profile picture is of a Russian skater. It is not her account at all. It used to tweet in Russian, but now tweets very aggressive anti-immigration stuff in the UK. “I” effing “hate Irish”, for instance, was one of the more expressive recent tweets, and @iamjohnsmith called on the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington to resign. [Interruption.] Well, that of itself does not prove it is a bad person. But seriously, he was only being attacked because of his political views. This is why it is dangerous for us to be complacent: there is a specific body of work attacking Twitter accounts to intimidate British MPs.
I concur with many of the speeches we have heard today. I believe this is a major threat to our democracy, to western democracy and to our way of life. It is probably the biggest threat I have experienced since the fall of the Berlin wall. At that time, there was a book written by an academic called Fukuyama about the end of history and suggesting that liberal democracy was effectively the final form of government. That now looks quite arrogant and hubristic as, over the years, Russia’s transformation has crept up on us.
There is, effectively, a type of war going on. It may not involve guns, armies and conventional threats, but it does involve bots and St Petersburg. In Russia, the state means society and society means the state. It feeds through many strata of Russian society. In many respects, Russia has been quite open about this. In 2013 and 2014, there were many public utterances from Russian generals who talked about information and the future being hybrid war. That is precisely what we have seen.
Russia is not the only country involved. As I understand it, about 25 to 28 countries are developing this type of global capability. If we all—even what we consider to be friendly nations—turn on one another and adopt these sorts of tactics, all could be lost. So we need to think about how we tackle this. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is currently investigating fake news, but perhaps a bigger issue is the use of algorithms, which allow access to target those who will internalise fake news.
During the US elections, swing states were targeted, especially individuals who were particularly susceptible to this type of fake news. There is currently a major debate about whether Facebook and other social media platforms are publishers, but we need to concentrate on the algorithms and on how we can get into those black boxes that tell us precisely how they work. We need to understand them and to introduce regulation with proper oversight. The danger of making Facebook a publisher is that with responsibility can come enormous power. It decides what goes online and it can dictate the discourse. That is too much power to put into its hands.
Social media companies need to co-operate more with the Select Committee and with international bodies. They, too, are invested in our society and our western ways. Unless they come to the party in this respect, there could be some real problems down the line.
On Brexit, I do not think the evidence is quite there at the moment in terms of the level of interference seen in the French elections, but it seeped in almost by osmosis. In Germany, a lot of fake stories appeared in relation to immigration. They affected people’s outlook and had an impact.
It is unfortunate that the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has left us. I served on the Committee and I believe that it would have been very helpful if he had informed the House about the organisation, in which he had a leading role during the referendum, that is under investigation by the Electoral Commission. I have served on the Committee for three Parliaments and I am ashamed that we are neglecting the most prominent issue before us.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) need not be shy about being premature in raising the issue. We had a debate on it in the Committee, and produced our report at the end of the last Parliament. We said that the Electoral Commission had told us that it was powerless to control information from abroad.
The role of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has been taken up by other Committees, and we are grateful to them for what they have done. A House of Lords Committee took it up the other day, when the Electoral Commission’s chief executive said that, as a UK-based regulator applying UK-based laws, the commission could do nothing about activity on the internet that was taking place outside the UK.
A year after the threat to us was flagged up, we are told that the Electoral Commission has no powers and that an investigation is taking place. The chief executive told us last year that the only organisation that could act was GCHQ, and nothing seems to have happened there. We are trying to control our elections with the tools of the steam age rather than those of the digital age. I raised the issue in my final point of order of the last Parliament, and Mr Speaker’s reaction was kind as always, but his main problem was that he did not know what an algorithm was.
Having been warned about these matters, we must realise that our elections and referendums are up for sale. People can spend large amounts of money—not just in Russia but in America—to obtain a certain end in our campaigns here. We are in a worse position than we have been at any time since 1880. There has also been the degradation of our political debate. It is possible to put forward a preposterous lie, which, if repeated enough, is believed and allowed with no censure.
The Office for National Statistics is the arbiter on these matters and the keeper of the truth, but it was the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority who complained that the Foreign Secretary and the present Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had made a claim that was demonstrably untrue, using a gross figure about the money that might be coming to the health service. Those two MPs were not summoned to the Committee to account for themselves, because the Committee refused to summon them, but it did summon David Norgrove, the man who had pointed out the error. As a result of that degradation, big lies have been told in other campaigns as well, such as the campaign for the alternative vote.
We no longer respect objective truths. People can lie with impunity and get away with it. We know that a great many people were interested in distorting the referendum and election issues, and we have no defences against that.
I should put on record that I have been doing some academic research on Russian conventional and non-conventional warfare. I lived in the Soviet Union and in post-Soviet states between 1990 and 1994, and I have recently made about seven trips to Ukraine and the Baltic republics for research purposes.
I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for initiating the debate, and for the spirit in which it is taking place. I think the best way I can help is by giving a few definitions, either Russian or my own, and then making some suggestions to the Minister.
In my view, the most important thing we can achieve is to avoid worsening relations with Russia and do what we can to minimise the chances of conflict, which are small but genuine. At the same time, however, we need to call out Russian malign intent, understand what is happening, and take firm action when it is required. It is clear that the Kremlin opposes liberal democracy and sees it as a threat. Its doctrines imply a conflict of values. We see that in the Russian foreign policy concepts, two of which have emerged in the last 20 years, and in the information security doctrine, the recent national security strategy and the three military doctrines that have also appeared in the past two decades.
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) talked about the conceptualisation of active measures and about hybrid war. In contemporary Russian doctrine, the first characteristic of military conflict is the combining of “people power” with military and non-military tools. It has been described as the
“integrated use of force, political, economic, informational and other measures of a non-military character, implemented with the extensive use of protest potential of the population and Special Operations forces”.
That is my slightly rough translation of the original. It refers to cyber and espionage as well as traditional, physical special forces operations.
Contemporary military conflict involves the integrated use of all tools, and vote-rigging is very much part of that. I have come across more than 50 such tools, too many to list here, but they can be divided into six categories. There is information warfare, of which we are seeing a great deal in this country, and in which I would include the substance of cyber. There is soft power: culture, religion, governance and law. That is more applicable to eastern Europe than to us. There are subversive political tactics. They date from the old Soviet active measures of which my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) will be well aware: assassination, blackmail, kompromat—the stuff that the Russians may or may not have on President Trump; we hope not, but who knows? Those tools were developed by the KGB, and have been re-championed by the FSB and the GRU. There are also diplomacy and public outreach, economic tools, and conventional and non-conventional military tools.
To those six elements we should add another two: command and control. Journalists often miss that out because they do not think it particularly interesting, but for diplomats, soldiers and, one presumes, spooks—people who are trying to understand them—the command and control structures are important. Finally, there is control through “psychological chess”. The Russians call it “reflective control”, and it is a way of leading opponents to their own demise.
I have been filleting my speech, and I have 45 seconds in which to tell the Minister what I think we need to do. I suggest that he should remember what was happening in the United States in the 1980s. It had a House Intelligence Committee which reported twice a year. It was a standing, powerful Committee which used a great many experts from across the range to publicise its results in order to inoculate society against the lies that were told. We need such a Committee. I shall write about that to various Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), in the new year. We need a powerful Committee that can look at matters holistically. Russian warfare is holistic, and ours needs to be as well.
We also need a standing group of experts. In the United States in the 1980s, the Active Measures Working Group was very successful in bringing to light the warfare activities of the Soviets and presenting the evidence to Mr Gorbachev.
I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for raising this issue today. I am always interested in what my learned friend, as I would call him, has to say. We agree on many things, although not on everything.
When I sat on the Defence Committee, along with Members who are present today, an issue that was often drawn to our attention was the influence of Russia through cyber-technology, radio stations and other media.
I am a staunch Brexiteer, and I was so pleased that the result of the referendum reflected what I believed was best, and still believe is best, for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am proud to represent the constituency of Strangford, which is a mixture of rural and urban, of city workers and villages, and which I believe contains a fair representation of the views of the United Kingdom. Strangford voted to leave. The question is, do I believe that that was achieved by Russian interference? Some Members have argued that there was an attempt to influence our vote, and the part of me that enjoys spy films has perked up: I want to see how the conspiracy works.
I am in no way casting aspersions on anyone who has spoken today. Members have their own opinions, and they have a right to those opinions, but they must also accept the ballot-box decision of June 2016. If they accept that, they should work with the rest of us to ensure that Brexit happens. I am simply trying to ascertain whether Russian influence changed the outcome of the referendum, and I have to say that I do not believe it did. I believe that my fishing community in Portavogie and the surrounding villages, who have seen their livelihood and their villages decimated by the structure imposed by the common fisheries policy, decided that enough was enough. They had had enough of Europeans lining their pockets at the expense of our fishermen in our seas catching our fish. They were fed up to the back teeth with bureaucrats sitting in centrally heated offices in Brussels making decisions about how many fish should be caught in Portavogie, along the coasts of County Down and elsewhere. They wanted out.
It is my opinion that the farmers who have been tangled in red tape and regulation for too many years, and who can rely on the Government to support and facilitate them, wanted out. The people on the street who see the money going to Europe with little return—and who want our money to stay here and be handed to those areas of need such as education and health, instead of being used to erect monuments in European cities—wanted out. We made our own minds up.
A balanced argument demands that I also highlight the people in my constituency who wanted to stay in, and who believed, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” There were those who were concerned about how local business and trade with Europe would continue, and there were those who were concerned about how their business would continue, and they voted to remain, as was their right. I visited those businesses and got their opinions, which I have fed into Government through my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and the Brexit Committee, to make sure that they are a part of the strategy the Government are trying to pursue. I must also say that these businesses have since put in place plans to secure their business and to ensure that they survive and thrive. That is what we do in my constituency, and it is what we should do in this House.
Was Russian influence at play? Did the Russians skew the vote? No, I do not believe they did. My constituents are intelligent people with a good understanding. They voted with their heads and hearts, and I do not believe for a second that a Twitter or a Facebook campaign affected this in any way. I believe the waiting lists in the hospitals and the problems with education were major issues, alongside the true driver of taking back our sovereignty and independence. That was what the vote was about.
The people have voted to ask us to do this, and we must deliver on that, regardless of any Russian campaign. It is clear to me that the people want out, and they want the Brexiteers, like me, and everybody else in this Chamber to be of the same opinion.
This has been a fascinating debate and this is an opportune time for it; I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for securing it.
It is also opportune to reflect on the fact that we are not the first to experience this. I had the great fortune a number of years ago, before I was an MP, to work in the former Soviet Union, and to have worked in Tbilisi for several years. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) pointed out in his excellent contribution, anybody who has spent time in the former Soviet Union will know that what we have experienced and are experiencing is not new; the tactic has been deployed over decades rather than just the past few months. It is useful for us to reflect on that. It is also illustrates why our engagement with the Ukrainians, the Georgians and others who have experience of this is so important.
As has been said, this debate is not about our relationship with the people of Russia. The people of Russia are wonderful, with their rich culture and rich history; the Russian Federation is the most extraordinary, diverse and wonderful country. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is not in his place at the moment, but he said he did not want this debate to take place. I welcome the fact that it is taking place, however, and I want to use it to highlight the impact Vladimir Putin has had on his own people.
Last year, I spent some time studying the conflict in Chechnya. It is a much-forgotten conflict, but in 2003 the United Nations described Grozny as the most destroyed city on earth. It is easy to forget the devastating impact the current President of the Russian Federation has had on his own people; it is a far more devastating impact than he has had on people elsewhere in the world. It is always worth bearing that in mind.
I recommend a Foreign Affairs Committee report from a couple of years ago, that the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and I, along with other colleagues, put together. It was—as always, thanks to our officials—a thoughtful and useful piece of work, and I want to reflect on the evidence we took.
Some of the most impactful evidence we took was in St Petersburg. We invited groups from around the Russian Federation to come and give evidence, and learned of the impact of the Russian regime on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups who have been threatened and bullied, and lawyers who fight for the rule of law with incredible courage that all of us in this House should reflect on.
The most impactful group I personally met was the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia. These were the women whose young men, and often young women, had been sent into the army, sometimes to fight, and who had sometimes lost family members, and could not get information about them. That is devastating for any family, and we would do well to reflect on the ongoing suffering of the people of Russia, and in particular on the bravery of the women of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia. I encourage the Minister and all Members to reflect on that.
I have appeared on RT. The report we produced was incredibly critical of RT, and I remember asking its representatives, “Will you give us evidence of where you’ve been critical of Russian actions in Syria?” They gave us none; it was, I think, the only bit of evidence they did not want to give us. So I thought I should go on RT, because if we are going to criticise an organisation, we should give it the opportunity to answer back.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs inquiry. He will also recall that when we took evidence from RT and Sputnik, we were told that they had a charter just like the BBC’s. We asked, “Where is it? Is it published?” They said, “We’ll send it to you.” As far as I am aware, it was never received by the Committee, however.
As always, the hon. Gentleman has a fine recollection of the facts and makes an excellent point.
It is important to state that Russia is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a journalist. It is worth putting on the record the extraordinary bravery of journalists going right back to those who covered the conflicts in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia, as well as over the border in the ongoing conflicts in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and of course Nagorno-Karabakh. Those areas do not often get debated because of everything else that is going on.
What is the solution to this problem? It is clear that our work with the EU has been very important. I hope that, regardless of where Members stand in the debate on leave or remain and where we sit in this Chamber, we will agree that the Minister must commit to continuing with our key partnerships with those organisations. The EU has a huge role to play. In terms of the development of the economy and the rule of law, we have done some extraordinary work with these organisations in Ukraine, the south Caucasus and elsewhere, and I hope the Minister will commit to continuing that.
I also pay tribute to the soft power that can be ongoing. We can do an extraordinary amount of work in cultural diplomacy, and I pay tribute to the British Council and others who are doing some fantastic work, including people who have worked for years in this area, such as Craig Oliphant—formerly of the FCO—Jonathan Cohen and Dennis Sammut. These are extraordinary people who have done extraordinary work in building our relations and understanding.
Finally, I say again that we must continue to work with the EU in stabilising and working with, and giving a carrot to, the countries that are threatened by the Russian Federation. The greatest threat to independence and sovereignty is not to the UK; it is often to the countries of the western Balkans, the Baltics and the south Caucasus.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this important debate.
The argument I want to make is that, unlike our agencies, the Government have been tragically late in waking up to the new world-view that President Putin set out with such clarity and force after his re-election as President in 2012. I also want to set out the opportunity, the means and the motive which have driven Russia to intervene in our democracy, and then to propose to the Minister a number of areas where I think we can work together on reform over the year to come.
Let me start with the motive, however. We have heard a lot, in particular from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), about the history of this, and that motive is important to underline. After Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, he offered a very different view about the possibilities of co-operation with the west from those he harboured during his first term. That world-view was not a secret. He set it out with great clarity in his 2013 state of the nation address, where he gave us the theory to match the fury he offered the world in his Munich security conference speech of 2007. He attacked what he called the “post-Christian” west of “genderless and infertile liberalism”, he attacked the Europeans who he said embraced an “equality of good and evil”, and he attacked what he said was a west trapped in moral relativism, lost in a vague sense of identity. Europeans, argued President Putin, had begun
“renouncing their roots, including Christian values, which underlie Western civilization.”
The Kremlin-backed Centre for Strategic Communications had a headline for this story. It described the pitch as “Putin: world conservatism’s new leader”. But of course, this world view has nothing to do with traditional conservatism. It has a great deal to do with the new trends of the alt-right. It has nothing to do with the party of Disraeli.
If Mr Putin were content to confine his philosophy to the limits of his own borders, we would not be having this debate. However, the reality is that he has set out systematically to wreck the vision, the legacy and the record of President Gorbachev, who set out, between 1987 and 1989, a very different view of the way in which Russia and Europe could work together to create what he called “an all-European home”, subject to a common legal space and governed by the European convention on human rights. That is not a view that President Putin shares. There is no all-European home for President Putin. Instead, we see a systematic effort to divide, rule, confound and confuse.
That brings us to the means of Russia’s new strategy. The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) did us a favour by sketching out the history of active measures. They have a long history in Russian warfare techniques. Major Kalugin, who was the KGB’s highest-ranking defector to the west, described the approach as
“the heart and soul of Soviet intelligence”.
Since 2012, under General Gerasimov, this doctrine has now been renewed. Some call it a doctrine, and some call it a philosophy, but the idea is that
“the very rules of war have changed”,
and that the role of non-military means of intervention behind an opponent’s lines is now very different.
As Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev of the London School of Economics have set out, these new tactics are characterised by opportunism and involve an unregulated network of propagandists whose material is distributed online. They point out that Russia is now operating in a post-truth environment, and there is no attempt to win people over to a Russian view of the world. There is simply an attempt to confuse and confound.
The way in which this goes to market in the west, however, is through an unholy alliance with extreme leftist groups and extreme right groups. Its aim is to polarise and divide, and to tear down the words on the coat of arms here in the Chamber, which state that we have “more in common” than sets us apart. If we look at the 45 new parties that have been created in Europe over the past 10 to 20 years, we see a clear majority that have some sympathy with Russia. They include Germany’s AFD, Austria’s FPO, the Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, the Front National in France, the Northern League in Italy and, indeed, the United Kingdom Independence party.
All those parties have taken a pro-Russia position on matters of huge international interest. The Front National, for example, was given significant loans by Kremlin-backed banks. If we look at the AFD’s relationship with Russia, we see how broadcasters such as Sputnik and Russia-linked accounts systematically intervened to attack Chancellor Merkel and to support the AFD. If we look at the relationship with UKIP, we can see very close links. Nigel Farage famously said that President Putin was the leader that he most admired, back in 2014. In the European Parliament, UKIP has taken consistent positions in favour of the Russian annexation of Crimea. The Atlantic Council has analysed a number of policy positions and concluded that UKIP MEPs
“made similar statements blaming the EU for the Ukraine crisis and asserting Russia’s right to intervene in the ‘near abroad’.”
Looking at all this in the round, the US intelligence community concluded that Russia was intervening systematically abroad in the west, and it would be naive of us to think that Russia was not trying to intervene here in this country.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way, because of the lack of time.
That takes us to the heart of the reform agenda that we need to look at. It has now become clear that there is a dark social playbook that is being used to great effect. We have hackers such as Cozy Bear hacking emails, and they work in partnership with useful idiots such as Wikileaks. Alongside them, we have what are politely called alternative news sites. These include Sputnik, Russia Today and, frankly, Leave.EU, Westmonster and Breitbart. They work hard to circulate news that will create a row on Twitter, then the troll farms kick in. The material is then sucked into private Facebook groups, at which point dark money is switched behind those ads to circulate them widely.
The study that I have commissioned for today’s debate from the data science firm Signify will be of interest to Conservative Members. It looked at the terrible front page in The Daily Telegraph attacking Conservative Members for being “Brexit mutineers”. Leave.EU and Westmonster probably picked up that story. Westmonster published the original content. Leave.EU then amplified the story on Twitter and Facebook channels, calling Conservative Members “a cancer” and “Tory Traitors”. Standard social listening tools show that the Twitter account attracted about 1,300 interactions. On the original post, there were only 44 interactions, yet the post on Facebook secured more than 23,000 interactions. The difference is explained by the fact that money, run in this case by Voter Consultancy Ltd, was being switched behind the story in order to attack, influence and attempt to suborn Conservative Members in the debates that we have had over the past week or two. Interestingly, Voter Consultancy Ltd is a dormant company, so we do not know quite where the money was coming from. It has, however, just set up an interesting subsidiary called Disruptive Communications, together with a man called John Douglas Wilson Carswell, formerly of this parish.
My point is that we now have a well-established playbook involving a method of creating rows on Twitter and sucking their content into Facebook using dark money. The ads are not going to everybody. Firms such as Cambridge Analytica or Aggregate IQ are very effectively targeting the ads at a particular demographic.
I will not give way.
There is now a motive, a means and a method for Russia to intervene in democracy that we must be aware of. The challenge that we face is that our legislation is completely out of date. The chairman of the Electoral Commission, Sir John Holmes, has openly warned that a perfect storm is putting
“our democratic processes in peril”
and called for urgent steps to deliver transparency in political advertising. We have regulation for social media firms under the European e-commerce directive of 2000, but that was written before social media firms grew to their present size and scale. Because they are treated as platforms, rather than publishers, Ofcom will not regulate them as broadcasters.
The Electoral Commission has confirmed to me that it cannot use civil sanctioning power on non-UK based individuals, or on conduct that takes place outside the UK. That is significant because—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), who is not in his place, said—there is a risk that money came in from abroad to support campaigns. The Advertising Standards Authority has expressed to me its grave disquiet that it can ban broadcast political advertising but it cannot ban political advertising in targeted social media platforms.
There are five key steps that we need to take. First, it is ludicrous that the national security strategy does not include a specific objective to defend the integrity of our democracy. Secondly, we need to review the e-commerce directive, as Lord Bew has recommended, and if the Government do not bring forward consultation on such a change, we on this side of the House will do so. Thirdly, it is time to look again at the Communications Act 2003. In particular, we want to know why the Electoral Commission is not using its power to investigate collusion between Aggregate IQ and Cambridge Analytica. Fourthly, the Electoral Commission obviously needs new powers. Fifthly, we need to pick up on what the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) said about a different generation of responses, like the active measures working group. I shall finish with a line from Abraham Lincoln, who said that
“the price of freedom is constant vigilance.”
We cannot let a new cyber-curtain disguise what our opponents are up to. It is time that this Government opened their eyes and started acting.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak today, and I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for bringing forward this topic for debate.
It is of course the first role of Government to protect the nation and its people and to safeguard our democracy, and we recognise and acknowledge the concern expressed by the House today about the threat posed to our politics and society by the exploitation of digital technology and platforms. We are happy to work with Members across the House on this. Of course, digital technology brings huge benefits and we celebrate the freedom that they bestow, but they also allow malign actors new means by which to communicate. We are committed to defending the UK from all forms of malign state interference, whether from Russia or anywhere else. When there is any suggestion that the Kremlin has sought to interfere in the political process, we treat such allegations seriously and carefully. The position is that, to date, we have not yet seen evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes by a foreign Government.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because there is an interesting divergence between the three Ministers who have spoken on this topic. The first response was, “I have seen no evidence that the Russians were trying to do anything”, and then the version that we have heard today is, “I have not seen any successful interventions.” What would success be? How is he defining success? I presume he means that there have been attempts.
We have seen no evidence of interference that has successfully affected democratic outcomes in the UK by a foreign Government. That has been the UK Government position for some time.
What would success be?
In a political process, success would potentially involve changing the result of that political process, and we have not seen evidence of successful attempts.
Part of the reason we are finding it so difficult to establish the impact is the lack of information coming from the social media companies. Will my right hon. Friend therefore join me in calling on Facebook in particular to co-operate thoroughly with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry?
Absolutely, and I will come on to express that in some pretty firm terms later in my speech. The point is that we have not yet seen evidence of successful attempts, but we remain vigilant none the less. I can assure the House that the whole of Government are alert to the threat and that we are working across Government on it.
Aside from the evidence that has been published out of the American inquiry, do the Government have evidence of intent, whether or not that activity was successful as they define it?
As several Members pointed out in the debate, there is already evidence of activity in the public domain. The question is about the scale of that activity and whether it is significant or not significant. As I say, there is not yet evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes.
I, too, question the criteria for success, because there is evidence of success in that it is provoking consternation at and the questioning of democratic results and policies in our country. Those are the criteria for success. We want to hear that GCHQ will aggressively target the generation of such material, do its best to block it and be much more proactive, but perhaps the Minister is coming to that point.
I will come on to that important point in relation to the cyber-attacks.
As the Prime Minister made clear in her speech at the Guildhall in November, we want to build a more productive relationship with Russia, but we also want to see Russia play its full and proper role in the rules-based international order. We will therefore not hesitate in calling out behaviour that undermines that order or threatens our interests at home and overseas.
If there was no evidence of successful intervention, was there evidence of unsuccessful intervention? If so, what was it?
Some evidence has already been declared, such as Facebook’s declaration that there had been some paid-for advertising by organisations that were also involved in US democratic processes. However, as we know, the scale of the activity that has been declared by Facebook is extremely small, amounting to $0.97. I will get on to the point about the transparency of information, because we do not think that that amount credibly represents the whole gamut of activity.
We have identified Russia as responsible for a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption around the world. When we have seen the Kremlin deploy disinformation in an attempt to sow division and meddle in overseas elections, and to deflect attention away from international incidents, such as the downing of MH17 or the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, we have rightly raised those concerns on the international stage. However challenging our relationship might sometimes be, it is also essential that we keep the channels of communication open to the Kremlin and the Russian people. To that end, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will be in Moscow tomorrow. While there, he will firmly and clearly raise our concerns over the use of disinformation and cyber, and he will reaffirm the Prime Minister’s message, given at the Guildhall, about wanting to see a more productive relationship, built on mutual trust.
I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way. On that productive relationship and cultural exchanges—he may not be able to answer this question just now, but he can write to me or ask the Foreign Secretary to write to me—will he guarantee funding for organisations such as the British Council, which is doing remarkable work in places such as Russia?
Of course we support the British Council. The hon. Gentleman made a good speech, but I felt slightly sorry for him, because the former leader of the SNP is on RT, taking RT’s shilling. I can confirm that Alex Salmond’s show is already under investigation by Ofcom. It is rather difficult for the SNP spokesman to say anything on this matter when he is completely contradicted in his attitude and tone by his former leader.
I did not want to intervene again, but I feel obliged to do so. The Minister refers to a former Member of Parliament, but current Conservative Members are getting paid for appearances on RT. Does he think that that should be cracked down on?
It is wholly inappropriate to appear on RT, and I certainly would not do so myself, but the SNP needs to take a cold, hard look at itself and its relationship in that regard, because I do feel sorry for the hon. Gentleman, who made quite a good speech and lots of good points.
I want to respond to some of the points raised in the debate. The right hon. Members for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) and for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) asked that this matter be a top priority for our national security strategy, and I can tell them that we take all allegations seriously and reassure them that the Russian threat, in all its forms, is a tier 1 national security issue.
Turning to the points made by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, he asked whether there had been discussions with Facebook and others. The answer is that there have, and they have been led by DCMS, because we lead the overall relationship with the platforms. He also asked for political parties to be treated as critical national infrastructure, but we think they should be regulated differently. For instance, the National Cyber Security Centre offers political parties access to the best cyber-security guidance, and we will continue to strengthen that guidance. Political parties are different from CNI, and it is vital that we do not surrender our own values of liberal democracy in our response to this threat.
We welcome any ISC work in this area, including with the Electoral Commission, which has the resources and the powers to follow the money. Any international money that funds British political activity—political parties or regulated activity—is not appropriate. The question of whether the Electoral Commission can then go further and deeper is not relevant. The point is that if the money is international, it is not right. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned imprints on online adverts, and I can confirm that the Electoral Commission is looking at that. He referred to RT, and a robust regulatory framework is in place for broadcasting, as has been discussed, and Ofcom has found RT to be in breach of the regulator’s broadcasting code on 13 separate occasions.
The right hon. Member for Exeter and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) spoke passionately about their views on Russia. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) both made the point that the question is not about whether there have been Russian attempts at interference, but to what degree. I agree with them, however, that there is no evidence of successful interference.
My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has long experience in this battle for minds, and I strongly agree that it is crucial that online users are able critically to analyse and properly question sources of information and news, especially when they relate to political or polling activity. He is right that our best defence fundamentally is our critical faculty as a society, and long-term work to ensure that that is strong is important.
This has been a very informed debate. In recognition of the new threats posed by cyber, the National Cyber Security Centre, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who is the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, has stepped up support for political parties and parliamentarians to encourage them to protect the data they hold. There is a distinction, however, between cyber-security—attacks to break down data-holding systems, which the NCSC is built to defend and GCHQ is involved in—and the open publication of misleading disinformation. Of course there is an overlap, but they are two separable issues. In government, it is for the NCSC to deal with cyber-attacks, but not to make judgments about disinformation, because it is a security agency. That is a matter for the Government to take a view on, not the NCSC.
The UK electoral system is one of the most robust in the world, and our manual counting system is difficult, if not downright impossible, to manipulate through direct cyber-attack, but cyber is just one of the issues. The Electoral Commission was mentioned many times. It has opened investigations into several aspects of campaign financing, including around the EU referendum, and although I cannot comment on these ongoing investigations, it is right that we consider whether the Electoral Commission is equipped with the right powers to carry out its critical function.
There have been suggestions for how the rules might be tightened up, including ideas from the commission itself, and we will continue to consider what the right balance of tools and powers should be, with particular recognition of the increased role of social media and online platforms. This needs to be done in the context of fake news, as set out so clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight). We share the House’s concern about the rise of fake news, and we fully expect social media companies, including but not limited to Twitter, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, to comply in full with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s request for information.
That brings us to one of the most important things that has come up in this debate. The Committee is due to examine top brass from Facebook, Google and Twitter at a hearing in February. These platforms recognise the problem, and we recognise the progress they have made, but there is far more for them to do on transparency and co-operation. This is a work in progress and there is much more to do. Frankly, we do not think that the Select Committee, on this issue, has been given the straight answers we would expect. So far the published information is entirely partial and wholly inadequate. It took the platforms a year to get up to speed with what to do in the US context, and this time they must do much better. We do not rule out taking further action if necessary. They need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. The Chair of the Select Committee is an extremely reasonable man, and his reasonable demands must be met in letter and spirit. We welcome the inquiry and look forward to studying its findings closely.
Finally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull said, the threats to our democracy are different from those in the past. They are vested no longer in tanks in the heart of Europe, but in the ether, in cyber-space, on the screens of our smartphones. We must have the confidence that the robust and free challenge of ideas is the best way to decide the future of our country, but political discourse must be based on objective reality, not malicious disinformation from abroad. Let us not fall into the trap of feeble relativism. Let us send the message clear and loud from this debate: true parliamentary democracy is better than autocracy, more free and more just. Once again, in a new generation, we are called to protect our freedom, justice and way of life. We must not fail.
I thank the Minister for his tough words about the social media companies, but we also need to ensure that the security services provide them with information they may have so that they can follow the leads already obtained by the intelligence services. I hope that the Minister will take it from this debate that the House demands that the UK Government prioritise defending our democracy from Russian interference.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Russian interference in UK politics and society.