Last November, British Prime Minister Theresa May addressed business executives at a London banquet hall and accused Russia of attempting to “undermine free societies” and “sow discord” by using media organizations to “plant fake stories.”
“I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed,” May said. “The U.K. will do what is necessary to protect ourselves and work with our allies to do likewise.”
One of those steps is avoiding the term “fake news.” May’s government said Tuesday that the phrase “is a poorly defined and misleading term that conflates a variety of false information, from genuine error through to foreign interference in democratic processes. Over the past several months during its work on this issue, the government has sought to move away from ‘fake news’ and instead has sought to address ‘disinformation’ and wider online manipulation.”
The government wrote that in its response to Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which investigated disinformation efforts and issued a report in July with 42 recommendations on how to stop them.
“Fake news” has served as an umbrella term for any sort of misleading information across the Internet, but it also has a darker side. President Trump often uses it to bat away unfavorable coverage, and the phrase has been taken up by authoritarian leaders to dismiss reports of their human rights violations. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have all used the term.
Not using “fake news” was one of just three recommendations May’s government has adopted from the committee’s report. “The government’s response to our interim report on disinformation and ‘fake news’ is disappointing and a missed opportunity,” the committee’s chairman, Damian Collins, said in a statement.
“We need to see a more coordinated approach across government to combat campaigns of disinformation being organized by Russian agencies seeking to disrupt and undermine our democracy. The government’s response gives us no real indication of what action is being taken on this important issue,” Collins said.
But taking wider action is easier said than done, some experts say.
“Everyone is struggling with it,” said Ben Nimmo, an information defense fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “In a lot of ways, this isn’t a problem you’re going to solve by legislation.”
Nimmo said there are multiple facets to the spread of misinformation. “There’s the foreign disinformation and the operations angle, and then there’s the much wider angle of general false and polemic and partisan information online,” he said.
In fact, some of the most successful forms of misinformation across social media don’t need to tell outright falsehoods. In March 2017, an attacker wielding a knife plowed his car through pedestrians near Parliament in London, leaving five people dead. That day, a Russian bot posted a photo of a woman wearing a hijab as she walked past victims, saying that she was ignoring the carnage. The message quickly made the rounds of right-wing Twitter and forced the woman to put out a statement saying she had been trying to reach her family to reassure them that she was all right.
The manipulation of such images is a “much harder one to crack” than outright false news stories, Nimmo said.
But in the fight against fake news, Britain is not alone in its failures. “The U.K. isn’t there yet,” Nimmo said. “It’s hard to think of anybody who is.”