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Our Message to NATO: Take Disinformation Seriously

11 May 2024

By Thomas Barton, Founder and CEO of Polis Analysis. Thomas will be representing Polis Analysis at the NATO Youth Summit in Miami, Florida on 13 May to warn of the threat disinformation poses to European security.



On Monday I will be representing Polis Analysis at NATO’s Youth Summit in Miami just one month after NATO celebrated its 75th anniversary. The Alliance was forged in the aftermath of the Second World War to deter future aggressors from weakening Europe’s security.

The need for NATO to guarantee European security feels as pressing as ever as war continues waging on in Ukraine following Russia’s revisionist attempt at using military force and bloodshed to annex the country and redraw Europe’s borders.

In the context of this conflict, security is often defined in traditional terms. Debates on defence spending and the type of weaponry NATO’s leading members should send to Ukraine to support its efforts in repelling Russia’s invasion have dominated discussions about European security. Just this week the British Foreign Secretary David Cameron was calling for NATO to demand its members meet an increased defence spending requirement of 2.5% of GDP.

While NATO is rightly central in these discussions and lives are lost on Ukraine’s battlefields, a new form of warfare war is being fought by Russia and it is happening online. We are living in an age of heightened disinformation as part of an evolution of the security threat landscape. NATO must also evolve if it is to properly strengthen European security.

While the use of disinformation can be traced back to Ancient Rome, the threat it currently poses is acute, including to Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russian aggression. The World Economic Forum has identified disinformation as the number one risk facing the world in 2024 and Ukraine is on the frontline of experiencing its pernicious effects. Online disinformation is an increasingly important tool as part of Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit. The deliberate dissemination of false content at scale aims to destabilise European democracies and presents a challenge to Ukraine’s military effort.

I warned about this in a previous article I wrote with the Member of Parliament John Penrose where we drew attention to the dissemination of a deep fake impersonating Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, calling on Ukrainians to lay down arms and welcome friendly Russian liberators. This Russian-backed disinformation campaign attempted to shape developments on the battlefield and shows no signs of abating. As of the time of writing, the media rating organisation NewsGuard has identified 479 websites spreading disinformation in support of Russia in the war in Ukraine.

The geopolitical stakes are high when it comes to disinformation yet big tech companies are failing to play their part in protecting its users from Russian-sponsored disinformation campaigns. Research published in February finds that Facebook failed to identify 91% of content linked to Russian war propaganda. We cannot depend on technology giants to protect Europe’s security interests so European governments and NATO must step in.

By NATO’s own admission, disinformation is a ‘national security priority’ given hostile foreign powers use the deliberate spreading of false content online to polarise societies and degrade their resilience. Despite this, leading NATO members have failed to prioritise disinformation as an issue that needs addressing. While Polis Analysis helped to amend the Online Safety Act in the UK in a legislative attempt to protect Britons from Russian peddled falsehoods, the legislation remains modest in its efforts to combat disinformation. The European Union’s Digital Services Act goes further by compelling technology giants to make their algorithms more transparent, but the reality is that European countries are poorly served when it comes to protecting themselves from Russian disinformation.

NATO itself can also do more when it comes to countering disinformation. Among the existing actions NATO undertakes to curtail the spread of disinformation, coordination with partners including social media platforms and private companies is cited. Any cooperation with the private sector should circumvent the lacklustre social media giants that have demonstrably failed to invest in appropriate content moderation practices. NATO should instead support the pioneers deploying technology to combat online disinformation campaigns.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is often seen in a negative light when it comes to the disinformation issue, as access to generative AI breaks down the barriers to entry for hostile actors to disseminate false content online. But some AI start-ups have developed frontier technological solutions to tackle disinformation. Using natural language processing (NLP) technology, these companies have developed disinformation detection systems capable of asserting whether online content is true or false. Google and Meta refuse to engage with these companies as they are unwilling to subject their algorithms to scrutiny. This starves AI start-ups of the funds they need to invest in improving the efficacy of NLP solutions. Where Big Tech has failed, NATO should step-up and invest in AI solutions to combat Russian disinformation campaigns. My previous calls for the British government to invest in the ecosystem of AI start-ups fighting disinformation can easily be extended to other leading NATO members.

Chief among NATO’s strategies for combatting disinformation is by engaging with the public through sharing accurate information to proactive debunk the hostile narratives that the Alliance anticipates to spread. NATO also engages online audiences targeted by hostile actors, sharing tools and knowledge required to protect themselves from disinformation. While such efforts are admirable, NATO members should invest far more heavily in equipping their own citizens with the digital literacy skills they need to successfully differentiate between real and false information online. Research finds only 2% of schoolchildren in the UK can successfully identify false content online. The UK and other leading NATO members must update their education systems and invest that the next generation, which disproportionately consumes news through social media sources, are armed with the digital skills needed to spot and report disinformation.

If NATO is serious about championing European security, it should accompany its pleas for members to meet their defence spending requirements with a call-to-action demanding NATO members invest in defensive capabilities against disinformation. Only then would NATO be properly defending Europe from the Russian security threat on all fronts.


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