Winter 2023

Asymmetric Warfare in the Age of Reality TV

Elisabeth Braw

Source: Lucas Varela

This autumn, Nigel Farage joined I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here. According to the former UKIP leader and successful Brexit campaigner, being part of the reality soap presented an opportunity to reach new voters. It certainly is. But today Western societies face so many threats that participating in a television show that merely features entertainment seems positively old-fashioned. There’s disinformation, there’s cyber aggression, there are threats against critical national infrastructure, supply chains, shipping, political institutions and whatever else hostile countries might think up. To have a chance of tackling such threats, countries like the UK need to involve all parts of society. Television shows would be a perfect educational opportunity.

Considering that I’m a Celeb is watched by an average of seven million Britons each week, Farage isn’t wrong to suggest the reality show is a good way of reaching new voters. But what a missed opportunity his participation is. I’m a Celeb is a plain old reality-television show, featuring people of various degrees of fame facing the sort of challenges one might face trying to survive in a jungle. The challenges, of course, are all made up. Back in Blighty and other Western countries, meanwhile, the government and the rest of society face challenges that are all too real.

In October this year, for example, two undersea cables and one pipeline connecting a combination of Estonia, Finland and Sweden were mysteriously damaged in the Baltic Sea. The countries’ investigators quickly identified as a likely perpetrator a Chinese-owned box-ship named NewNew Polar Bear that also has close connections to Russia. She had even completed a pioneering return trip between Russia and China along Russia’s Arctic Northern Sea Route. But by the time the investigators established that she had apparently dragged her anchor for a very long distance and at very low speed, the NewNew Polar Bear was long gone, once again making the journey to China.

Geopolitically influenced infrastructure saboteurs may strike again – and such incidents will add to the accidental damage caused to the crucial cables. Each year there are some 100 cable breaks, of which around 75 per cent are caused by innocent human activities like fishing and anchoring, 14 per cent are caused by natural events like earthquakes and six per cent are the result of equipment failure. Some of the other incidents are intentionally caused, though in reality it’s virtually impossible to know when, say, a vessel sets out to harm a cable and when the damage is accidental.

Russian navy ships and merchant vessels have, for example, been loitering off the coast of Ireland, in exactly the place where a considerable number of undersea cables connecting Europe and the US East Coast are located. Why they’re there is unclear, but what happens when undersea cables are severed is not. Because modern societies are entirely digital, daily life grinds to a halt. That’s exactly what happened to Taiwan’s Matsu Islands in February this year [2023], when Chinese vessels severed the two undersea cables connecting the islands with Taiwan proper. Every service and function the Matsu Islanders had been taking for granted – as we all do in our respective digitally advanced countries – ceased to function. The residents were lucky that they’re a small community and that their mobile network provider set up free wifi in its shops on the islands and launched a back-up microwave system, but such a solution would be much harder to improvise in a large community, let alone a whole country. 

Instead of having to cope with made-up problems celebrities” on I’m a Celeb should have to cope with real-life challenges like such an internet cutoff. It would be entertaining reality television – and it would be educational too, because seeing the contestants trying to tackle such a realistic scenario would get viewers thinking about how they’d do it. 

The same thing goes for energy disruptions and other disturbances that have become far more likely as a result of today’s geopolitical tension. There’s not just an obvious risk of sabotage against undersea pipelines but also a real danger of cyber attacks cutting off power, water or other essential services. In 2019, O2’s UK customers had to put up with a network outage that lasted nearly 24 hours. It was a pain for these customers, including me. Since I obviously couldn’t use Google Maps while out and about during the outage, I had to ask a station attendant which train I should take – and I found that the attendant was of far more help than my AI-powered map was on a normal day. 

Such obvious solutions notwithstanding, people panic when the internet, or power, or water, goes down for a just short period. The same thing happened when a ransomware gang with links to Russia crippled Colonial Pipeline, the pipeline that transports most petrol on the US East Coast, in May 2021. Upon hearing that the pipeline had been struck, concerned East Coast drivers made sure to fill up their cars (and various containers) with petrol. This stockpiling made the petrol shortage caused by the cyber-attack immeasurably worse. There could be a reality television show about such disruption, too: not just sudden shortages of petrol, but sudden disruption of food and other essential goods as well. That, again, would help ordinary citizens think about how to act if essential goods are temporarily unavailable and how to plan for such eventualities. The Western public’s response during Covid-19’s first weeks – which saw consumers stockpile goods they assumed would be crucial, thus causing product shortages and general chaos — was an exceptionally positive signal to any hostile country wishing to cause harm by disrupting supply chains.

But most of all, countries need to tackle disinformation – and that means not just Western governments but business and citizens too. For years, disinformation and misinformation has plagued Western public discourse, and for the most part the falsehoods have been seen as an inconvenience, not an immediate threat. That, of course, changed on 6 January 2021, when a group of Americans believed the falsehoods propagated by Donald Trump to the point that they attacked the Capitol to support him. 

The Capitol attackers didn’t know how to verify information, and nor do most of the rest of us. Research study after research study show that while the majority residents of Western countries believe they’re capable of verifying information, most of them are not. In one recent scientific study on information accuracy, 79 per cent of participants said it’s very or extremely important to only share accurate news, but during the course of the study 77 per cent shared at least one false statement. Such lack of information literacy results in constant sharing of social media updates that contain inaccuracies or are outright lies. The disinformation reporters now employed by some news organisations work valiantly to keep up with the information torrent and debunk as much as they can, but the adage that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes has been proven painfully true in the social media age. Disinformation and misinformation have, in fact, created a modern surround-sound so all-encompassing that when the Labour MP Karl Turner shared a doctored image if Rishi Sunak on Twitter, he said in his defence that he had no idea’ it was fake. Turner’s party colleague Darren Jones made the same point, arguing that the real question is: how can anyone know if a photo is a deepfake?’

Thanks to artificial intelligence, fake photos are indeed looking more and more real, and so are fake videos and fake audio recordings. Generative AI can also create so much written content that no army of fact-checkers can keep up (though social media platforms should do more to catch falsehoods). Indeed, social media, constant global crises and people’s need for attention have created such a maelstrom of falsehoods that giving factual information a chance requires involvement of all parts of society. The fact that hostile states and others wishing to poison the public discourse can insert their own falsehoods into today’s toxic mix makes tackling it even more urgent.

That brings us back to Nigel Farage and all the other somewhat famous personalities in the I’m a Celeb jungle. Instead of having shows like this, featuring contestants attacking made-up (and by now predictable) challenges, television producers should turn their attention to disinformation. The UK and other Western countries need reality-TV shows where the contestants compete to identify falsehoods in the daily news stream. The contestant who correctly identifies the fewest incorrect items has to leave the camp, and so on until only the winner remains. It would be compelling entertainment – and educational too. Indeed, if I’m a Celeb’s viewership figures are anything to go by, such a show could get millions of people scrutinising information to make sure no falsehoods get past. Defeating new national-security challenges is a whole-of-society effort.

Elisabeth Braw is a senior associate fellow at the European Leadership Network, an advisor to GALLOS Technologies and the author of Goodbye, Globalization (Yale University Press, out 13 February 2024).