The situation in Ukraine weighed heavily across the entire House of Commons last week. I joined other Members of Parliament from all sides at a defence briefing by the Chief of Defence Intelligence on the latest situation. The military briefing underlined that the situation is a grave one for that country. The repercussions may be far-reaching, with NATO, the UK, the European Union and America all involved in diplomatic efforts. The Russian troop positions now effectively encircle the country. It is difficult to interpret those actions as a country seeking peace with its neighbours.
The Russian position is, in short, that Ukraine is part of its own geography – with shared history, cultural, religious and linguistic roots. President Putin has published an eloquent and long essay setting out the Russian position. It is a reminder that communications are a key part of any political act, right up to and including an act of war.
Our own military have communications specialists, as do other armed forces. This specialism can be used in peace time to put up new mobile telephone masts and television infrastructure where countries are in a crisis event, for example a tsunami or earthquake. That way people can get the aid, support and information they need.
Communications can also be used negatively. This can be blocking the ability to access information or intentionally spreading information – propaganda. That has always been the case. Nowadays, it is the social media platforms that spread information or disinformation at such a pace that once out there, it simply cannot be contained.
Where once the trusted brands for the truth were the national broadcasters, the BBC for example, it is now social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter who are accountable to no-one, except their shareholders. The voices who are trusted are increasingly ‘influencers and commentators’, seemingly judged by the number of followers or how good-looking they are. But in a virtual age this can include people who don’t actually exist, made-up organisations, photos and film that may be doctored, research that is simply untrue.
It was once said that a lie can travel the world before truth has got its boots on. But now it is said that we live in a ‘post-truth’ age. Where opinions become fact, statement becomes reality, and the truth is now what someone perceives it to be. Increasingly, people choose to participate in news and views that only reflect and reinforce their own. This is called the ‘echo chamber’ of the virtual world. This creates a unique threat and challenge to our politics and to our shared culture and values as a country. As well as to managing a response to conflict or war.
While far away, the Ukraine situation is already creating ripples right to the UK. It will be a test of the new global leaders. The world waits for President Putin to make his next move.