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The PRmoment Podcast: Alex Aiken on how the UK government attempts to counter the disinformation campaigns of Russia and China

Welcome to the PRmoment Podcast.

This week, we’re chatting to Alex Aiken, long-time executive director of the UK Government’s Communication Service.

Alex has worked with six Prime Ministers when they've had to make their most crucial decisions. He worked in government communications during Brexit, during the COVID crisis, when the queen died and when Russia invaded Ukraine.

In short, he’s been in the room during many of the most difficult periods of the UK government since the Second World War.

He was appointed in December 2012 and has overseen a huge change in UK Government Communications. Currently, part of Alex’s role is to counter the disinformation spread by foreign governments about the UK and its allies.

Whatever your politics, it's acknowledged globally that UK Government Communications is a global leader in ensuring the effectiveness of its communications to the UK public.

Before we start, if you haven’t already, look at our new event PR Masterclass: The Agency Growth Forum.

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Finally, thanks so much to the PRmoment Podcast sponsors the PRCA.

Here are some of the highlights of what Alex and PRmoment founder Ben Smith discussed:

2 mins What does a good disinformation campaign currently look like?

3 mins How digital and social media have added extraordinary scale to Russia’s disinformation campaigns.

4 mins Is there much evidence that people are becoming more circumspect to Russia’s disinformation campaigns?

4.30 mins Alex talks us through the principles of countering disinformation: strong and independent media, educated citizens and good public information.

“AI, bots and digital media mean we’ve got disinformation campaigns on steroids- it’s easier, cheaper and quicker to do now than it’s ever been.”

9 mins “(For the European Union, The UK, The US and the G7), it’s only by working together to identify disinformation, by attributing it…and by working on the stories we want to tell that we will be able to combat it.”

“To some extent, the UK can withstand disinformation, but smaller countries (those with newer democracies and a less independent media) are more at risk.”

10 mins Alex shares his concerns about the attack of disinformation on democracies.

He refers to the book Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Era by author Philip M. Taylor, which suggests that the sophisticated digital propaganda of today poses a serious threat to democracy.

“For centuries, information has been a powerful component of military doctrine.”

“Information is a very powerful tool. Sometimes the public relations profession underestimates the power and value of its own currency of information…of truth told well.”

12 mins Does Alex agree with this quote from the Freedom House Report on “Beijing's Global Media Influence 2022:

The Chinese government, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, is accelerating a massive campaign to influence media outlets and news consumers around the world.”

15 mins How much of Alex’s current role is to try and coordinate Western government’s response to Chinese, Russian and North Korean disinformation?

15 mins The Government Communications Service RESIST Toolkit is a globally recognised tool to help counter disinformation.

“It (RESIST) gives colleagues confidence that there is a way they can tackle disinformation.”

20 mins How understanding is the British public of the disinformation threats from the UK's enemies?

“A robust public debate is the best defence against disinformation.”

23 mins Alex refers to the book Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid.

The book talks about the most significant disinformation campaigns in history, including:

  • The Soviet Union's use and propaganda to sow discord among the Western Allies during World War II.

  • The CIA's Operation Mockingbird during the Cold War.

  • The Russian government's interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

Alex reflects on how bad the disinformation war is currently from a historical perspective.

“We have witnessed a growth in state propaganda…it’s a tool in state's armoury. Countries, typically authoritarian states, will use it when they are under pressure.”

26 mins Does Alex worry that the UK's adversaries will spend more on disinformation than the UK is able to spend on disinformation defence?

“Independent think tanks have…estimated that the Russian government spends $1bn a year just on disinformation. The total budget for UK government communications is between a half and two-thirds of that.”

28 mins How can the UK and its allies win this information avenue of conflict if we’re going to be massively outspent?

“If you want your society to prosper and thrive, you have to deploy all the talents and capabilities of your people, and if you are to allow them to do that, you must let them think, and you must allow them to challenge. Because that creates innovation, the scientific and engineering breakthroughs, that create prosperity.”

“It’s not inevitable that we will succeed, but the story we tell is a powerful one.”

30 mins Does Alex worry that the Russian or Chinese governments have strong PR representation in London?

32 mins Do we still believe that a free and independent media helps transparency and ultimately drives innovation, whereas a repressed media ultimately drives out innovation?

33 mins Do we know how the public in repressive regimes react to their own government’s disinformation?

“There is, across the world, a thirst for information.”

35 mins The economics of journalism and publishing aren’t great right now. That’s not great in the fight against disinformation, is it?

38 mins Moving on to the war in Ukraine, how has Zelensky changed the rules of international diplomatic communications?

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