Britain’s enemies are attempting to use social media to tear the "fabric of society apart", a top military general has warned.
General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander Strategic Command, said the threat was a subtle influence of sowing discord and propagating conspiracy theories.
"In some respects, the most important, the most relevant use of cyberspace is that the real power is in influence and not in sabotage," he told Sky News’ Into The Grey Zone podcast.
"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."
Gen Sir Patrick said that offensive cyber, striking against enemies before they inflict damage on the UK, was "unquestionably" one of the ways 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".
His comments come as ministers look to counter misinformation about coronavirus and its vaccines, with the inoculation rollout continuing at pace in the UK.
Additionally, a report published last year by MPs on the Intelligence and Security Committee found "credible open source commentary" suggesting Russia tried to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
Jeremy Fleming, GCHQ director, told the podcast the UK was ready to strike against those 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 but said "it’s available to governments to use in that context".
Both men went into detail about how cyber attacks on so-called Islamic State (IS), and supporting rebels on the ground, helped bring down the self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
They said the British forces and security experts were involved in disabling laptops and phones, as well as meddling in the terrorists’ communication networks to spread confusion.
Much of the work was carried out from GCHQ’s headquarters in Cheltenham, thousands of miles from where the fighting was playing out.
Cover image: General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander Strategic Command (Picture: MOD).