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by Jack Thomson
30 April 2021
Foreign interference: The question of meddling in democracy and how it's tackled

What do we know about meddling in our democratic process and how is it tackled? (Picture: Shutterstock)

Foreign interference: The question of meddling in democracy and how it's tackled

Estonia, a small nation with a population of 1.3 million people, knows the perils of foreign interference in a democratic society. 

The country was one of the first to come under attack from a modern form of hybrid warfare – a strategy which combines cyber-attacks with influencing methods, such as the sowing of disinformation.  

In April 2007, the government decided to move a statue – known as the Bronze Solider – from the centre of Tallinn, the capital, to a military cemetery on the city’s outskirts. 

The history of the sculpted figure is complex. It was unveiled by Soviet authorities in 1947, originally called ‘Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn’.

For many Russian speakers in Estonia, it represents the triumph over Nazism. For ethnic Estonians, Red Army soldiers were not liberators, but occupiers, and the statue is a reminder of Soviet oppression.

The controversy in 2007 provoked fury in Russian-language media and protests followed. On 26 April, two nights of rioting and looting broke out in Tallinn. Many were injured and one died. 

Estonia was then hit by a wave of cyber-attacks, and banks and news publications’ online platforms were targeted in an event which has shaped its response to hostile intervention. 

“It was a wake-up moment for the society that these things can happen,” Anett Numa, a digital transformation adviser at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre tells Holyrood.

“There is always a risk remaining somewhere over the shoulders that we have to be prepared for. When I think about the 2007 crisis… I was still in high school and I remember from the news hearing what was happening. 

“I was really scared for the first time in my life that there could be a war happening. We still have this, I would say. We are afraid in our heads still in that way.”

Estonia’s neighbour is Russia and, while there is no concrete evidence that it carried out the 2007 cyber-attacks, suspicion exists of the Kremlin’s role in the events. 

I was really scared for the first time in my life that there could be a war happening. We still have this, I would say. We are afraid in our heads still in that way.

Indeed, that unease when it comes to Russia and potential meddling in the activity of other countries’ societies and politics is something that is shared by the UK.

The focus on hostile intervention at home was sharpened with the publication of a long-awaited report last summer. Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee found the Russian threat had been “badly underestimated” and the UK Government was “playing catch up” in its response. 

With the report came the uncomfortable reality that our own democratic society is not immune to foreign interference, as well as the suggestion that the government was not as prepared as it could be.

The inquiry covered a range of issues, pointing out that the UK was a target for Russian disinformation and the defence of democratic processes was a “hot potato” with no one organisation taking a lead on it. The report also claimed no effort was made to investigate allegations of interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

While there are other meddling states, Russia is the actor most people think of first on the topic of foreign interference. 

“We know it happens,” Dr Joanna Szostek, a lecturer in political communication at Glasgow University tells Holyrood. “There are certain cases that we know a lot more about than others. The US 2016 [election] is the case of interference we know most about because of all the scandals associated with that and the investigation that was done.

“There’s also quite a lot known about Russian interference in Eastern Europe, which probably doesn’t get as much attention over here, but has been a reality for years.

“I think particularly the sort of interference or intervention via the media, social media, TV – that’s been attracting much more attention since 2014 when Russia-West relations soured over Crimea.”

So, what could make us vulnerable to this behaviour? The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has questioned whether current legislation to protect the electoral process from malign interference is sufficient in an ever-evolving digital landscape.

Additionally, Scotland and the rest of the UK has become an increasingly polarised political environment, particularly in relation to the constitution. There is also mixed confidence in the press and public broadcasting, which can be exploited by disinformation machinery. 

Building resilience is key, but how do we do that? David Leask, a journalist who has been investigating the subject for more than a decade, says: “In democracy you have to have an informed and able citizenry and that’s easy to say but quite hard to do.”

Leask points to certain countries that are geographically closer to Russia who have done good work to combat the threat of interference, such as Finland, Ukraine and Estonia. 

The latter learned from its experience 14 years ago and has become an expert in cyber defence. 

Remembering the situation caused by hostile actors in 2007, Numa adds: “When there is a moment of confusion in society, they can use this moment to make that worse, but of course these bad things happen and you can learn from them and improve the system internally. This is what we did.”

Estonia now has dedicated cyber forces and has focused on informing people of the threat of online misinformation and disinformation.

This has been done through television campaigns and the creation of platforms where concerns can be reported and information’s accuracy verified. Educating future generations is also considered key in strengthening a nation’s resilience. 

Numa explains: “When I think about how different countries are trying to attack others, spreading dis- and misinformation all the time, the younger generation is going to be facing this even more often in the future. 

“We have to start teaching them to question everything from an early age because they are born in the age of the internet… so if I could suggest something to someone else in another country, it would be to spend as much time as possible on education, campaigns and raising awareness.”

Read the most recent article written by Jack Thomson - Leader of the flock: 25 years on from Dolly the Sheep

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