Trump, NATO, the NHS and a wicked Russian plot

Puppet masters? Trump and Boris Johnson (left); Putin and Jeremy Corbyn (right). © Tutu

Is Russia interfering in UK politics? A new report suggests that Putin is “sowing confusion” and disinformation online in the latest stage of an information war on its NATO enemies.

This morning, Donald and Melania Trump, resplendent in yellow, leap from every newspaper front page — in the middle of a bitterly fought UK general election. And with one eye on next week’s poll, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has sent Trump a message: “Our NHS is not for sale.”

The state-funded National Health Service is a top priority for voters, and Corbyn has put it centre-stage in his campaign to be the next Prime Minister.

His secret weapon? Evidence of secret trade talks between the Conservative Government and the US that he says means the NHS will be “sold off” to US companies.

The evidence looks convincing, but where did it come from? A report yesterday points to Russia. If true, it is the latest volley in a war of information and disinformation between the two countries.

A war that turned deadly in March 2018 when a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter were poisoned in Salisbury. They survived, but a UK citizen later died from exposure to the poison Novichok.

The UK blamed Russia and expelled suspected Russian spies. Other countries did the same, sending 150 spies back to Russia.

President Vladimir Putin denied everything. Instead, Russia spread confusion and disinformation online. In the first month after the attack, 138 different theories appeared on social media, creating “false narratives” that blamed the US, the UK and others.

And it worked. By September, polling showed that only 55% of people in the UK thought Russia was responsible.

Putin has the “ability to deny that today is Thursday, and to convince people of that”, says the US head of counterintelligence. Taking advantage of the way we read and share news on social media, Russia allows fake news and conspiracy theories to drown out facts and truth.

Russia’s involvement in both the US presidential elections and the EU referendum have been investigated, but a government report into Russian interference in UK politics has been delayed — because of the election!

As one opposition MP said, this means the UK will vote “without fully understanding the extent to which Russia has meddled in our most recent democratic electoral events”.

So is Russia meddling in the UK election?

Fake “fake”?

Some say this is a “distraction”. Everyone loves a spy story, but let’s not get things out of proportion. During elections, everyone is trying to win votes and influence the result. What matters are the facts. If the leaked documents are genuine, it doesn’t matter where they came from — what matters is what they mean for the future of the UK and the NHS.

It’s not a distraction at all, say others. The aim of this interference is to create confusion and chaos, and undermine trust in our political institutions. If we do not confront it and fight back against disinformation and fake news, people will no longer have confidence in elections and democracy. This means regulating social media and the internet, removing fake accounts, lies and disinformation.

You Decide

  1. Do you think Russia is interfering in the UK general election?
  2. Do politicians have a duty to ask where their information comes from?

Activities

  1. Design a poster to help people identify fake news online.
  2. “Leaks are good for democracy.” Divide into two groups and use the Expert Links to research the case for and against this statement.

Some People Say...

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”

John F. Kennedy, (1917-1963), 35th US President

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Jeremy Corbyn has obtained confidential documents that reveal several meetings between senior UK and US trade officials between 2017 and 2019. They discussed the NHS as part of a future trade deal. In particular, they discussed relaxing the market of medicines to allow US companies to sell in the UK. On Monday, Graphika, an organisation that monitors online activity, said the way in which the documents had been leaked and shared online, suggested the leak originated in Russia.
What do we not know?
There’s very little we do know — and that’s the problem! The Russian government strongly denies the accusations that it has interfered in UK politics, and we do not know how the Labour Party acquired the leaked government documents. We also do not know the contents of a report on Russian involvement in UK politics, and must take on trust much of what is being said by politicians in the run-up to the election. And trust is currently in short supply.

Word Watch

National Health Service
A publicly funded healthcare system in the UK, formed in 1948, paid for by taxation and with basic and emergency services “free at the point of use”.
Disinformation
False information spread deliberately to deceive.
Double agent
A secret agent spying on their own country on behalf of the enemy. Skripal had been spying on Russia for the UK intelligence services.
Novichok
A chemical weapon developed by Russia and used by the Russian military and intelligence services.
Counterintelligence
The organisation responsible for defending a country against spies and interference from other countries.
Meddled
Interfered. To get involved in something that is none of your business.

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