Channel 4 has faced heavy criticism after broadcasting a fake emergency news message warning that the UK is about to be hit by a catastrophic cyber attack.
The message was filmed at what appeared to be GCHQ – the UK government’s intelligence and security headquarters – and informed viewers that Britain’s energy and water supplies could be cut off by an imminent attack.
The clip, which played on Friday evening, was in fact a stunt promotion for The Undeclared War, a drama series that’s set to air later this year.
Channel 4 defended the stunt by saying that it wanted the advert to be “believable and unnerving”. However, viewers complained that they were confused by the broadcast, which urged people not to panic buy food while admitting that “we must expect a significant impact on how we live”.
One viewer said: “I saw this and was really confused whether it is real or not. Wasn’t really explained and then announced ‘Undeclared War’ on screen. Don’t know if this should be on TV or not.”
Other respondents described the advert as “very convincing” and being in “bad taste”.
Notably, the message aired just before one of Channel 4’s most popular shows, Gogglebox, so many people will have tuned in without any context.
Was it too believable?
Ofcom has been asked to investigate whether the clip breached broadcasting rules that restrict the use of simulated news.
The technique isn’t prohibited, but it must be “broadcast in such a way that there is no reasonable possibility of the audience being misled into believing that they are listening to, or watching, actual news”.
Channel 4 believes that it met those requirements. For example, the actor Adrian Lester appears on screen credited as Prime Minister Andrew Makinde, while Simon Pegg also appears as the head of operations at GCHQ.
Zaid Al-Qassab, the chief marketing officer at Channel 4, said: “Since Orson Welles first terrified the nation with his War of the Worlds broadcast, the idea of feeling that the nation is at the centre of a drama has thrilled audiences.
“The Undeclared War is so relevant to our current global context that we wanted viewers to feel the jeopardy to our very way of life. We think this campaign really brings the reality of cyber war into people’s homes.”
Lynsey Atkin, the executive creative director of 4Creative, Channel 4’s in-house marketing agency, said: “It’s not often the darkest possibilities of the modern world prove exciting to delve into, but it’s been fascinating developing this campaign and working with Peter Kosminsky to make it as believable – and as unnerving – as possible.”
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The problem might be that the clip was too close to reality. Unlike War of the Worlds, which garnered such a strong reaction in part because of the improbability of the story – an alien invasion – The Undeclared War presents something that we are being regularly warned about.
The threat of crippling nation-state cyber attacks has existed for years, dating back at least to the interference of the US Presidential Election in 2016.
Two years later, the then-head of the NCSC (National Cyber Security Centre), Ciaran Martin, said that it was a matter of “when, not if” the UK suffers a major cyber attack.
Incidents have proliferated since, and in 2021, the UK government announced plans to invest £24 billion in cyber security and the armed forces as part of a major shake-up of its defence policy.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the plans: “Cyber power is revolutionising the way we live our lives and fight our wars, just as air power did 100 years ago. We need to build up our cyber capability so we can grasp the opportunities it presents while ensuring those who seek to use its powers to attack us and our way of life are thwarted at every turn.”
His comments were proven correct earlier this year when cyber warfare become a major tactical and political tool during the early weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Both sides have used cyber attacks to support hard power. Russia launched a malware attack on the Ukrainian military hours before it began its full-scale invasion, while pro-Ukrainian fighters attacked the Belarusian railway system after discovering that it was being used by Russia to transport tanks and weapons into Ukraine.
There have also been countless cyber attacks designed to spread propaganda, while those who have publicly backed Ukraine have faced the threat of retaliation.
The UK’s NCSC (National Cyber Security Centre) warned businesses that they could be targeted by Russian cyber criminals, and it later transpired that the UK Foreign Office had been hacked.
For a TV drama to suggest that the UK could be hit by a devastating cyber attack is not simply speculative fiction designed to trick the gullible. It is just as likely to happen as anything else that you see in the news.
Of course, the verisimilitude of the advert is exactly why Channel 4 chose this stunt. Let’s just hope that its show lives up to the hype and presents the genuine risks of a nation-state cyber attack.