An aerial image of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. GCHQ is one of the three UK Intelligence Agencies and forms a crucial part of the UK’s National Intelligence and Security machinery. The National Security Strategy sets out the challenges of a changing and uncertain world and places cyber attack in the top tier of risks, alongside international terrorism, a major industrial accident or natural disaster, and international military crisis. GCHQ, in concert with Security Service (also known as MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6) play a key role across all of these areas and more. Their work drives the UK Government’s response to world events and enables strategic goals overseas. Image Credit: Crown Copyright

Fifty years ago, when the Cold War was in full swing, the easiest way for Moscow to sow the seeds of discord and disharmony in the West was to recruit and fund Communist sympathisers who sought to destroy the political status quo. Now a new form of information warfare being waged against the West by hostile states can achieve the same aims through the clever application of modern technology.

And what is really terrifying about this new propaganda war is how credible it can appear. One of the more egregious examples of Moscow’s modern-day black arts was the photograph that went viral on the internet that appeared to show a Muslim woman nonchalantly walking past the bodies of victims of the westminster Bridge terror attack in March as they lay prone in the street. It was an image that was guaranteed to stoke the fires of Islamophobia in the highly charged atmosphere immediately after the attack, and could easily have resulted in greater antipathy towards Muslims in Britain.

Now it transpires that the image was not, as originally thought, put online by a Texan tourist who happened to be in the vicinity. It was, in fact, posted by a Russian agent, all part of the Kremlin’s relentless campaign to promulgate social and political discord in Britain, as well as many other western democracies. The man who actually took the picture said the woman was clearly “traumatised”.

The recent political turmoil in Catalonia is another occasion where officials say they have detected evidence of unwelcome Russian meddling. European Union counter-propaganda experts based in Brussels say they identified an upsurge in pro-Kremlin disinformation and false claims about the Catalan independence referendum, with incendiary headlines such as “World powers prepare for war in Europe” appearing in both Russian and Spanish.

This mounting evidence explains why British Prime Minister Theresa May was so outspoken in her condemnation of Moscow’s tactics in her Mansion House speech last week. May pulled no punches in accusing the Russians of trying to “weaponise information” by meddling in elections and planting fake news stories with the sole aim of fomenting political instability among western democracies.

Nor is this new form of cyber-warfare confined to the Russians. A report published by the Washington-based Freedom House think tank into the manipulation of social media for political ends has found that online disruption tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year. Among the worst affected was the United States, where claims that Russian hackers helped Republican candidate Donald Trump to win last year’s presidential contest still echo around the White House.

To date, there is no direct evidence that the Russians have tried to influence the outcome of a democratic process in Britain, although the UK Electoral Commission is conducting an investigation into what role, if any, the Kremlin played in the 2016 Brexit referendum. But there can be little doubt that Moscow regards Britain as a prime target for its fake news campaign. The House of Commons media committee has begun an inquiry into whether Moscow has tried to interfere in British politics, and plans to hear evidence from representatives of both Twitter and Facebook.

Even in the absence of conclusive proof of Russian meddling in Britain’s political affairs, there is still much we can do to protect ourselves against this new threat to our well-being. Both Government Communications Headquarters, the Cheltenham-based communications centre, and the newly-created National Cyber Security Centre in the UK need to be proactive both in disrupting and exposing the fake news operations run by Russia and other hostile states. They also have the tools to inflict similar damage on the country’s foes if such a need arose.

Politicians must also be a lot less naive about allowing Russian propaganda outlets to operate freely from bases in the West. Freedom of expression is all very well, but not when it seeks to undermine the very foundations of democratic institutions.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.