On the brink of an election, The UK does not have time to bring forward measures to resist the sort of social media and misinformation campaigns carried out by hostile states that have affected some Western nations, officials say.
Following the 2016 Brexit referendum, some defeated remain campaigners alleged that a misleading social meda campaign by Russia had influenced the result.
UK officials and politicians have discussed tightening laws around regulating social media and advertising, but have done little to implement such measures.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly called for an election to break the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit.
UK government bodies are offering conflicting assessments of the recent impact of misinformation and social media messaging on British politics.
In 2018, Andrew Parker, director of MI5, said he knew of no evidence that foreign government interference had influenced the Brexit referendum result.
“I’m not aware of any information suggesting that the outcome was determined by any sort of interference,” he said.
However, a report issued earlier this year by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee challenged this view.
The British government “cannot state definitively that there was ‘no evidence of successful interference’ in our democratic process, as the term ‘successful’ is impossible to define in retrospect,” the report said.
“There is, however, strong evidence that points to hostile state actors influencing democratic processes,” the committee said. It said anti-EU articles about the referendum circulated by Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik had a much wider “social reach” than similar content posted by official pro-“leave” Brexit campaign websites.
Russia denies interference in the Brexit process.
Following the Brexit referendum, government agencies started developing plans for tightening polling procedures and instituting controls over election-related social media.
The Cabinet Office issued proposals to outlaw intimidation of candidates and require greater disclosures by online campaigners.
One official said a key plan was to implement a “digital imprints regime for online election campaign material” by the end of 2019, with the aim of increasing awareness of disinformation and making elections more transparent.
The Cabinet Office has also prepared legislation which would create a new offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners in the run-up to an election, the official said.
However, neither of these proposals has been approved by parliament and it is unclear how they could move through the legislative process before the next general election, now likely before the end of 2019, officials acknowledge.
“The government recognises the seriousness and urgency of introducing these commitments, but it is important that we consult properly and consider the views of others to make sure the regulatory framework is as watertight as possible,” one official said.