Integrity Initiative: where now for the UK’s anti-fake news drive?

Daniel W B Lomas

Reports that Integrity Initiative, a project run by the Fyfe-based charity, the Institute of Statecraft, had received government finding to tackle Russian disinformation, have triggered parliamentary questions, news coverage and online conspiracies, but what are the implications for the British government’s fight against Russian misinformation?

Last week the website for Integrity Initiative was ‘temporarily removed’ pending a probe into the ‘theft of data’. In November 2018, the hacktivist group Anonymous first revealed Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) funding of Institute of Statecraft and its programme, Integrity Initiative, which aims to counter ‘disinformation and malign influence’ encouraging media literacy and media freedoms, through friendly journalists and key ‘influencers’ throughout Europe, using social media.

Officials at the UK National Cyber Security Centre, a part of the UK signals intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), believe the hack was part of a state-backed campaign by the Kremlin to discredit British government anti-fake news initiatives. The FCO said the documents were ‘published and amplified by Kremlin news channels’.

Online communications are now an integral part of the UK’s national security. In November 2017, the UK government announced it had committed £100 million over five years to combat disinformation or ‘fake news’ globally. The government also declared a new National Security Communications Team in January 2018, drawing on the Government Communications Service, to counter ‘hostile actors’ in cyberspace, exerting ‘disproportionate influence in competition with the public interest’.

Certainly, the UK government needs to outsource some anti-fake news tasks to the private sector – it’s just too big an issue to deal with in-house, especially given the size of the task. Data revealed by Twitter showed that the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency was able to share 9 million tweets, using 3,800 accounts. Both Twitter and Facebook have also closed thousands of accounts linked to Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

But the problem for Integrity Initiative and the Institute of Statecraft (and the UK government’s anti-fake news drive) is that they are the story – not the influencers. In December 2018, Scotland’s Sunday Mail ran a story that Integrity Initiative’s Twitter feed ran a series of articles critical of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and his inner circle, alleging a covert Government-funded unit had been ‘attacking the official opposition in Parliament’, leading to awkward questions. Specifically, the Twitter feed shared an April 2018 story critical of Labour’s policy towards the Syrian conflict, while another suggested ‘It’s time for the Corbyn left to confront its Putin problem’. Another suggested that Corbyn was Moscow’s ‘useful idiot’ – provoking a fierce backlash from Labour, and awkward questions in the House of Commons.

‘It is one of the cardinal rules of British public life that official resources should not be used for party political purposes’, argued Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry. Integrity Initiative had ‘routinely been using its Twitter feed to disseminate personal attacks and smears against the Leader of the Opposition, the Labour Party and Labour officials’. Labour’s Chris Williamson told MPs the organisation’s aim ‘seems to include the denigration of the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn’, later telling Russia’s state-backed RT network that Integrity Initiative mirrored Cold War CIA influence operations.

The Institute of Statecraft denies attacks on the Labour leadership, citing ‘a campaign to undermine [its] work … in researching, publicising and countering the threat to European democracies’. Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan also denied domestic activity: ‘Our agreement, written into the contract with the institute, specifically states that the grant must not be used to support activity intended to influence, or attempt to influence, the UK Parliament, Government or political parties’.

If anything, Britain’s experience of Cold War counter-propaganda tells us that secrecy is key. Details of the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department (IRD), formed in 1948 to counter Russian disinformation, were revealed by The Guardian’s David Leigh in January 1978 – a year after the organisation had closed. During its lifetime, the IRD kept a network of politicians, journalists and foreign governments to counter-Soviet lies, through unattributable ‘grey’ propaganda and confidential briefings. It also worked with Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) and the BBC’s World Service.

Beyond combatting Soviet fake news, the IRD was also busy spreading domestic anti-Communist messages in the UK trade union movement and safeguarding Britain’s overseas interests;, from supporting Britain’s entry to the European Economic Community in the 1970s to controversially spreading anti-IRA propaganda at the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The IRD was the shaper of news, not the main subject.

In contrast Integrity Initiative has become the focus of news stories, reported by Russia’s RT network and the Moscow-based Sputnik news, and the left-leaning website The Canary. Unlike Russia’s fake news campaigns, which rely on a web of conflicting narratives and ‘implausible deniability’, the case of Integrity Initiative highlights the difficulties of running UK-based influence activity in the digital age.

It’s a story that’s bound to rumble on. New leaks have included the names, email addresses and phone numbers of individuals involved with the Institute for Statecraft. Others have suggested the organisation was involved in framing news about the positioning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, by a GRU team in Salisbury in March 2018. For Russia, Integrity Initiative will become a useful bogeyman to discredit UK efforts to combat online misinformation, while promoting a myriad of new counter narratives. For the UK, it highlights the difficulties of fighting fake news in the digital age.


Daniel Lomas is Lecturer in International History at the University of Salford.

His recent review essay, ‘The Zinoviev letter’, was published in the January 2018 issue of International Affairs.

Read the essay online here.