Everyone is familiar with news headlines concerning ‘Russian hacking’, which surfaced particularly during the 2016 US elections and Brexit campaign, but how much truth is there behind these claims, and what impacts does this alleged online meddling have on an international scale?

Claims of Russian hacking in the US began to surface around September 2015, when the FBI made claims that computers belonging to the Democratic National Committee had been breached by hackers, allegedly from Russia, and since then such incidences have become more and more prevalent. Not only have Russian hackers been blamed for deleted emails on Hillary Clinton’s private server, they have also been accused of influencing voters during the US elections, when research into social media platforms disclosed that Kremlin-linked advertising on Facebook reached over 126 million Americans over 32 months.

Lucky for us, Britain hasn’t been left out of the equation either. The Times has reported that some 155,000 twitter accounts that list Russian as their main language posted tweets in English urging Brits to vote for Brexit in the two weeks leading up to the election, with the majority of the most active of these accounts being deleted shortly after this period. Russia-based hackers have also been linked with attacks on British telecommunications and energy networks of a much more worrying nature.

‘nearly 150 million americans didn’t realise online political material they were viewing came from russia.’

A quick Google search reveals thousands of articles describing the mischievous activities ascribed to Russia-based internautes and the effects these appear to have all over the world. One of the most prominent ways that Russian hackers have been influencing western politics is through accounts on social media, such as the aforementioned fake Facebook accounts which have been proved to have an enormous outreach. This is particularly concerning considering the increasing use of social media that we have seen over the past decade, making more people vulnerable to online attacks and fraudulent information than ever before, and allowing anyone with a computer and internet access to be either an attacker or a victim. As President Trump said on the subject of  cyber-attacks during a debate with Hillary Clinton : ‘It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds’. Not the most trustworthy of sources, but true in his view that the ease of access to the internet provides millions of people with a global outreach that could easily be misused.

Young people in particular favour social media use, and recent trends show that social media platforms are the primary way in which young people engage with national and international politics. Considering this, the Russian hacking trends prove particularly worrying once we delve into just how influential Russian accounts on Youtube, Twitter and Facebook are in America. According to The Daily Beast, ‘hundreds of millions of Americans – nearly 150 million, Facebook acknowledged on Wednesday [4th January 2017] – didn’t realise online political material they were seeing and sharing came from a foreign adversary’. Had they any suspicion that the posts they were reading and sharing came from fraudulent Russia-based accounts, it’s likely they wouldn’t have believed them quite so quickly.

With a generation of young people relying on social media for both news and views on politics, how much of what we see online can we believe? Not much, it seems, or we need to be very careful and highly skeptical. For example, the Daily Beast has also identified numerous twitter accounts that have been suspended that chose names remarkably similar to U.S news firms. These included ‘PheonixDailyNew’, and ‘MissouriNewsUS’, which would likely fool many an unsuspecting individual.

As such online activity grows, and the internet becomes a political platform and weapon, the question of what measures should be taken to prevent invasive action is becoming more and more important. Stricter international laws concerning such issues could be an example of a way to manage this problem, although action also needs to be taken by individual countries.

‘children are especially at risk, and more education on how to identify false news is needed.’

In the UK, the government has opted to create a ‘National Cyber Crime Unit’ (NCCU), which works hand in hand with GCHQ to combat internet-based threats on a national and international scale. More could also be done to inform businesses as well as individuals on how to stay safe from cyber-threats and respond to attacks. We only have to consider the havoc caused by the ‘WannaCry’ ransomware attack in May 2017, which crippled hundreds of NHS clinics and hospitals as well as affecting international firms Honda, Nissan and FedEx to get a feel for the scope of the damage internet cybercrime can cause. WannaCry software encrypts and blocks files, demanding a ransom from the user of the target computer, and has since been attributed to North Korea.

But how to protect users from fake accounts on social media remains a more burning question, considering just how many people are exposed to fraudulent accounts on a daily basis. More education on how to identify false news is needed for children in schools to ensure that there is a strong awareness of internet fraud in children from a young age.

On this note, as the phenomenon of fake news becomes more of an issue, we need to consider whether this trend is the future of worldwide politics; lies, misinformation and untruths spread through the most powerful political weapon of our generation: the internet.

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