When we met as part of the British-American Parliamentary Exchange in 2019, we never imagined the gravity of the events we would face in public service.
The last year has seen great turbulence on both sides of the Atlantic, from Brexit to presidential elections and a global pandemic. These events, era-defining in and of themselves, have been underpinned by a creeping challenge to objective truth that poses a fundamental threat to our democracies.
The insurrection that gripped the United States Capitol building in January is seared into the minds of Americans and shocked audiences across the world. This assault on US democracy was the direct result of a baseless disinformation campaign perpetrated by the former president, Donald Trump, in the days after his legitimate defeat at the polls. That this attack took place in one of the beacons of democracy should leave us in no doubt about the serious threat disinformation poses.
A tide of disinformation is also rising in the UK, Europe and other democracies. The spreading of lies and misinformation about rare Covid-19 vaccine side effects had a real impact on vaccination rates across Europe and reports suggest that Russia and China have exploited this.
In the UK, thousands attended anti-lockdown protests, fronted by populists and predicated on the fiction that Covid restrictions were unnecessary. Even as recently as last month, we heard disturbing reports of Iran allegedly using disinformation to swing Scottish elections in favour of pro-independence parties, to destabilise the UK.
All these events confirm we now live in a world where truth is subjective.
The threats to our democracies are no longer limited to things we can see. Hostile activity can be undertaken more easily than ever, on a comparatively small budget and by nations or groups that do not measure up to conventional definitions of strength. Never before has the old maxim “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”, been more apt.
The pace at which we respond to this change will shape the events of the next few decades. It should be considered one of the foremost geopolitical threats and a key objective in safeguarding our democracies.
Progressives have called for a coordinated global response to beat the pandemic. The UK should use its G7 presidency to define a similar approach to this contemporary battle.
Commitments made at the recent G7 foreign and development ministers’ meeting to bolster the group’s Rapid Response Mechanism are welcome. This now needs to become a comprehensive global instrument that systematically exposes and combats disinformation. Ongoing commitments to Nato, undermined by former president Trump, will also be essential to developing multilateral efforts to combat organised falsehoods.
Individual governments, social media companies, and even the press all have a role to play too. Ensuring domestic investment in cyber security that matches the scale of the challenge will be important, as will making sure social media companies are responsible for rooting out deceit.
Perhaps most fundamentally, it will require world leaders – particularly those of G7 nations – to have the courage of their convictions and defend facts, science, and democracy when it matters most.
That is why we must continue to place a high premium on the character and qualities of our political leaders.
Ultimately, this is not about policing free speech, or an attempt to deny anyone the right to express their view in a reasoned argument. It is a call to recognise a clear and present danger to our countries and to democracies around the world.
The commitment to democracy is a foundational part of the relationship between the UK, the US and the rest of the G7. It has been at the centre of challenges we have faced together in the past. As we emerge from the pandemic, that same commitment must be the basis on which we face the challenges of the future.
Representative Colin Allred is the Democratic Congressman for Texas’ 32nd congressional district and a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Stephen Morgan is the MP for Portsmouth South and shadow armed forces minister
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