An exposition on THe forEign informatioN mAnipulation and interference​

ATHENA responds to the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy Inquiry into Defending Democracy.

Author: Dr Richa Kumar, Trilateral Research

On 1 February 2024, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy published an inquiry into Defending Democracy. This was the UK’s commitment to protecting democracy, which had been pledged as the “first duty of any government” in its 2021 Integrated Review. This was followed by the launching of Defending Democracy Taskforce in November 2022. The Taskforce aims to protect the democratic integrity of the UK in collaboration with local councils, police forces and global tech companies. With this aim, the Joint Committee invited written evidence in response to their 13 questions. Trilateral, as the coordinator of the EU-funded ATHENA project, has responded. 

The three-year ATHENA project, which began in November 2023, is focused on countering foreign interference in elections. Of particular relevance to ATHENA is, therefore, the consultation’s discussion on the resilience of UK electoral processes against foreign interference. No country is immune to foreign interference which can range from overt actions of war like the Russian invasion of Ukraine to sophisticated information manipulation via fake news and disinformation campaigns. 

The UK’s legal framework for countering foreign interference lies with the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS), which was introduced by way of an amendment to the National Security Bill (the Bill). The FIRS has a twofold purpose: first, to strengthen the resilience of the UK political system against covert foreign influence and, second, to provide greater assurance around the activities of specified foreign powers or entities. Under the FIRS amended rules, organisations and individuals carrying out political influence activities on behalf of a foreign state are required to register under the scheme or face a criminal sanction with a maximum two-year sentence, a fine or both. 

Foreign interference has also been referenced in the Online Safety Bill as a priority offence. This requires services to assess the risk of foreign interference occurring on their platforms and action proportionate measures to mitigate and manage the risks. 

In the Online Safety Bill, “foreign interference” includes “foreign information manipulation and interference” (FIMI), which is what ATHENA is specifically aiming to tackle. FIMI is “a mostly non-illegal pattern of behaviour that threatens or has the potential to negatively impact values, procedures, and political processes. Such activity is manipulative in character, conducted in an intentional and coordinated manner. Actors of such activity can be state or non-state actors, including their proxies inside and outside of their own territory.” 

Currently, the ATHENA project is analysing the impact of FIMI on democracy in 30 case studies. Our findings can strengthen the UK’s fight against FIMI as we study the attackers’ tactics, the behavioural and societal effects of FIMI, and develop novel AI-based countermeasures to combat FIMI. Based on our findings so far, we recognise that FIMI campaigns can negatively impact societal values and undermine political processes, and we recommend that laws and policies be bolstered with advanced AI-informed countermeasures, media literacy programs and constant engagement with citizens. 

International cooperation will also be key to tackling FIMI. The UK is a part of a global coalition of democracies, and the USA, UK and Canada signed a framework to counter foreign state manipulation with the aim of addressing disinformation as a national security threat. The success of the global coalition of democracies will rely on practices of information and data sharing, which is a thorny area. Based on Trilateral’s experience in coordinating CC-DRIVER, an EU-funded project on the human and technical drivers of cybercrime, we recommend that the UK should strengthen rules around data trusts and data sharing in compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In addition, in the long term, the UK and other governments could develop open-source repositories with a virtual data lab and collaborate with researchers, civil society organisations, advocacy organisations, fact checkers and citizen bodies to make the findings accessible and understandable. There should also be provisions to make this information available across media platforms, both online and offline.   

In addition to forging the above alliances and announcing new laws, we strongly recommend that to defend democracy, we should focus on building citizen resilience to manipulated information and FIMI. ATHENA encourages public awareness and training programs that empower citizens (and other stakeholders), with the goal of enabling them to identify, and thus be less influenced by, manipulated information. 

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