Russian disinformation tackled by new website laws in the UK

Hacking the Internet, website hacker.
© Welcomia

New UK laws will require social networks and websites to look for and remove Russian disinformation, including a new criminal offence of ‘foreign interference’

The UK government announced that the National Security Bill is to be updated to include a new criminal offence of ‘foreign interference’ in light of growing concerns over the impact of disinformation – particularly due to Russia and its invasion of Ukraine.

Disinformation, as defined by the government, is false or misleading information deliberately spread for political, ideological, or malicious reasons.

Distinct from misinformation, which is defined as falsehoods spread unknowingly or inadvertently – often by individual website users, Russian disinformation has been used recently to spread propaganda in Russia in its war against Ukraine.

Links with the UK’s Online Safety Bill

The proposed national security law, which is currently going through committee examination in the House of Commons, will also be amended to provide a “link… with the Online Safety Bill”, which is also working its way through parliament’s lower chamber to protect online information from being exploited by foreign interference.

The UK government said: “[This] will make it illegal for a person to engage in conduct for, on behalf of or with intent to benefit a foreign power in a way which interferes in UK rights, discredits our democratic intuitions, manipulates people’s participation in them and undermines the safety or interests of the UK.”

This connection will mean the internet safety laws will include the new foreign interference office among its specified “priority offences”.

Putin overlay with a Russian flag
© Olga Eremeeva

A statement from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, added: “It means social media platforms, search engines and other apps and websites allowing people to post their own content will have a legal duty to take proactive, preventative action to identify and minimise people’s exposure to state-sponsored or state-linked disinformation aimed at interfering with the UK.

“This includes tackling material from fake accounts set up by individuals or groups acting on behalf of foreign states to influence democratic or legal processes, such as elections and court proceedings, or spread hacked information to undermine democratic institutions.”

“Risk assessments” to identify content that might constitute deliberate interference

The “proactive” measures means that sites are expected to include “risk assessments” to identify content that might constitute deliberate interference from a hostile foreign state.

In particular, the government is cracking down on content moderation of suspected state-sponsored disinformation, aiming to make people consider its “intended effect”, as proposed by the government.

Websites should make judgements informed by “patterns of behaviours and tactics used, or aided by relevant knowledge of the political and geopolitical context”.

Technology firms will also be required to implement “proportionate systems and processes” to try and reduce the chances of users encountering such content.

“…Making it more difficult to create large scale fake accounts or tackling the use of bots in malicious disinformation campaigns.”

Ofcom, which is to take on responsibility for regulating online harms, will publish a code of practice to help companies understand their legal responsibilities. Breaches of these obligations could result in fines equivalent to up to 10% of a company’s global turnover – which would currently equate to more than £20 billion in the case of Google, £10 billion for Facebook, and £400 million for Twitter.

DCMS said: “This could include measures such as making it more difficult to create large scale fake accounts or tackling the use of bots in malicious disinformation campaigns.”

DCMS secretary Nadine Dorries added: “The invasion of Ukraine has yet again shown how readily Russia can and will weaponise social media to spread disinformation and lies about its barbaric actions, often targeting the very victims of its aggression.

“We cannot allow foreign states or their puppets to use the internet to conduct hostile online warfare unimpeded. That’s why we are strengthening our new internet safety protections to make sure social media firms identify and root out state-backed disinformation.”


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