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We can’t allow fake news and disinformation to upend our democracy

Fake news, misinformation and cyber attacks are part of our political process – now is the time to act

When the extent of Facebook’s involvement in the democratic process during the 2016 US election was revealed, it became clear that we’d reached a new era for democracies.

To everyone’s shock, we learned that Russian hackers successfully infiltrated the digital voting systems of several states. They also stole data from campaigns and manipulated it via social media channels to fuel even more polarisation among voter groups in swing states. 

And because of the 2019 General Election here in the UK where society was similarly divided, those issues suddenly came to feel much closer to home.

The events of 2016 and the recent data breaches affecting the Labour Party characterise a new battleground for hackers and cyber security experts where politics, people’s belief systems and the very fabric of our democratic processes are under threat.

But while tech giants Google and Twitter have recently made moves to ban misleading political information on their platforms, we’re far from the finishing line. In fact, most people are woefully unprepared – through no fault of their own – to navigate the information and misinformation onslaught.

It’s crucial we find new ways of defending the integrity of the democratic process by supporting innovators to develop new tools. We also urgently need a public education drive that empowers people to understand the influences at play – whether it’s an overt breach or subtle, targeted fake news.  

The government needs to take a leadership role here, but they’ll need industry’s support. Tackling such a complex, global challenge will require cross-border and cross-sector collaboration. The public sector and startup community must also be proactive in their security approach, and could prove key to unlocking powerful solutions.

With new and ever-advancing threats to our political system from outside actors, it’s time for the cyber security industry to adapt to the needs of our society. 

The good news is that with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), GCHQ, academic institutions such as the Centre for Secure Information Technologies, the London Office for Rapid Cybersecurity Advancement (which Plexal delivers) and no shortage of cyber innovators, we already have a robust security ecosystem in the UK. We just need to refocus it to address this particular challenge.

As they say, democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others. And there’s nothing more powerful in a democratic country than a legitimate election. So let’s hope in the aftermath of this election that we didn’t miss an important trick.

Instead, let’s understand where we need more safeguards and bring the public and private sectors together to establish cyber solutions that protect the political sphere. The integrity of our democracy depends on it.

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