Cyber enemies using social media to ‘tear society apart’, warns army general

Patrick Daly, PA Political Correspondent
·3-min read

Britain’s enemies are attempting to use social media to tear the “fabric of society apart”, one of the country’s top military generals has warned.

In a candid interview about cyber warfare, General Sir Patrick Sanders said the threat was not like that seen in films where power plants are targeted, but was rather a more subtle influence of sowing discord and propagating conspiracy theories.

Speaking to Sky News’ Into The Grey Zone podcast, the Commander Strategic Command said: “In some respects, the most important, the most relevant use of cyberspace is that the real power is in influence and not in sabotage.

“And so what you’re seeing are our adversaries, our rivals, exploiting the tools that are meant to make for a more utopian society – so things like social media – against us, fuelling conspiracy theories and really sowing division and tearing the fabric of society apart.

“You could go so far and describe it as almost fuelling a civil war inside some of these societies.”

Sir Patrick said that offensive cyber – striking against enemies before they inflict damage on Britain – was “unquestionably” one of the ways in which the military was “protecting our democratic processes”.

He said, with countries such as Russia and China switching to “non-military means of activities” to secure their aims, the “most important weapons don’t necessarily fire bullets”.

General Sir Patrick Sanders
General Sir Patrick Sanders (Owen Humphreys/PA)

His comments come after a report published last year by MPs on the Intelligence and Security Committee found there had been “credible open source commentary” suggesting Russia tried to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Ministers are also looking to counter misinformation about coronavirus and its vaccines, as the inoculation rollout continues at pace in the UK.

GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming, also interviewed on the podcast, said the UK was ready to strike and had the tools to hack into the phones of adversaries engaging in cyber warfare.

“We might deploy capabilities to counter individual criminals or serious and organised crime gangs and that could include … getting onto their phones or the technology they are using,” he said.

Mr Fleming suggested the UK had not yet utilised an “offensive cyber” on another state.

GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming
GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming (Joe Giddens/PA)

Asked whether it had been deployed against another nation, he said: “We’re able to say that it’s available to governments to use in that context.”

The men went into detail about how cyber attacks on so-called Islamic State (IS), as well as supporting the rebels on the ground, helped to bring down the self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

British forces and security experts were involved in disabling laptops and phones and even meddling in the terrorists’ communications networks, to spread confusion among its troops, they said.

“They either couldn’t trust the messages that were coming to them or they weren’t working,” Sir Patrick said.

Much of the work was carried out from GCHQ’s headquarters in Cheltenham, thousands of miles away from where the fighting was playing out.

Mr Fleming added: “We tactically disrupted the communication of the Daesh’s (IS) fighters on the battlefield at times and that gave the military commanders the element of surprise, enabled them to adopt a different posture in that combat.”