MONDAY 5 FEB 2018 4:05 PM


The past few years has seen a step-change in both the content and the dissemination of communication. Seismic shifts in the global political landscape, such as Brexit and widespread support of outsider political figures such as Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, has seen an accompanying rift between traditional news outlets and, as one presidential aide put it, ‘alternative facts.’ Yet, with the industry’s integrity at stake, implications for the journalism and public relations industries extend beyond occasional misreporting.

As part of a consolidation of its wider defence facilities, the UK government has launched a new national security unit aimed at tackling the threat of fake news and disinformation. Launched in January 2018, the National Security Communications Unit (NSCU) will monitor what it describes as ‘competing narratives’ and mitigate the impact from potential external threats such as Russia – a country often the subject of speculation on meddling in the Western democratic process.

Speaking at the time, a spokesperson for UK prime minister Theresa May said, “We are living in an era of fake news and competing narratives. The government will respond with more and better use of national security communications to tackle these interconnected, complex challenges.”

“To do this we will build on existing capabilities by creating a dedicated national security communications unit. This will be tasked with combating disinformation by state actors and others.”

And, for trade bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), this move is widely welcomed – although some have expressed disappointment it has taken the government so long to act. For Stuart Bruce FCIPR, chair of the CIPR’s Policy and Campaigns Committee, the introduction of indicative of the types of threat facing an increasingly globalised, interconnected society. The changing nature of communications, says Bruce, means how disinformation is tackled should extend across all scales, and include as wide a variety of stakeholders as possible.

“Targeted misinformation and propaganda has long been a part of modern warfare and the growth of technology and social media has created a new vulnerability which is potentially doing great damage to public trust,” says Bruce. “The routes available to tackle this issue range from more effective regulation of social media platforms to tackling and eliminating the threats posed by hostile state actors. The solution is going to take many forms and it is critical that no compromises are made in terms of free speech, which is the central value of our democratic institutions.”

Perhaps there is reason to be optimistic, however. For practitioners, the establishing of the NSCU indicates a move toward taking threats to the communications industry seriously; policy is being updated to serve the needs of contemporary society. “It is an illustration of the shifting balance in threats that, less than a year ago, the Conservative election manifesto was silent on this issue, despite containing many promises on cyber security,” says Bruce. “Government must be clear with the public about the complex and ambiguous nature of this challenge.”

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