The same disinformation campaigns that epitomize the divisions in US
society – beliefs in voter fraud, vaccine conspiracies, and racist
conspiracies about migrants, George Soros and Black Lives Matter, to
name a few – are a source of strength for autocracies like Russia,
where the lack of a consensus on which groups and views are real and
which are manufactured by the state strengthens the hand of Putin and
his clutch of oligarchs.
In a new Harvard Berkman Center paper, Common
-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy, political scientist Henry Farrell (previously and security expert Bruce Schneier (previously)
team up to explore this subject by using information security
techniques, and come to a very plausible-seeming explanation and a set
of policy recommendations to address the issue.
Farrell and Schneier start by exploring the failures of both national
security and information security paradigms to come to grips with the
issue: Cold War-style national security is oriented around Cold War
ideas like “offense–defense balance, conventional deterrence theory, and
deterrence by denial,” none of which are very useful for thinking about
disinformation attacks; meanwhile, information security limits itself
to thinking about “servers and individual networks” and not “the
consequences of attacks for the broader fabric of democratic societies.”
Despite these limits, the authors say that there is a way to use the
tools of information security to unpick these kinds of “information
attacks” on democracies: treat “the entire polity as an information
system with associated attack surfaces and threat models” – that is, to
think about the democracy itself as the thing to be defended, rather
than networks or computers.
From there, they revisit the different disinformation styles of various
autocracies and autocratic movements, particularly the Russian style of
sowing doubt about what truth is and where it can be found (infamously,
Russia’s leading political strategist admits that he secretly funds some
opposition groups, but won’t say which ones, leaving everyone to wonder
whether a given group is genuine or manufactured – there’s some excellent scholarship
contrasting this with the style used by the Chinese state and also with
techniques used by authoritarian insurgents inside of democracies, like
In the paper’s framework, the stability of autocrats’ power requires
that the public not know how other people feel – for there to be
constant confusion about which institutions, groups and views are
genuine and which ones are conspiracies, frauds, or power-grabs. Once
members of the public discover how many of their neighbors agree that
the ruling autocracy is garbage, they are emboldened to rise up against
it. Tunisia’s dictatorship was stable so long as the law banning dissent
could be enforced, but the lack of enforcement on Facebook allowed
Tunisians to gain insight into their neighbors’ discontent, leading to
the collapse of the regime.
By contrast, democracies rely on good knowledge about the views of other
people, most notably embodied by things like free and fair elections,
where citizens get a sense of their neighbors’ views, and are thus
motivated to find solutions that they know will be widely viewed as
legitimate and will therefore be sustainable.
So when information attacks against democracies sow doubt about the
genuineness of movements and views – when Soros is accused of funding
left-wing movements, when Koch Industries’ name is all over the funding
sources of right-wing think-tanks, when politicians depend on big money,
and when Facebook ads and its engagement algorithm pushes people to
hoaxes and conspiracies – it weakens democracy in exactly the same way
that it strengthens autocracy. Without a sense of which political views
are genuine and which are disinformation, all debate degenerates into
people calling each other shills or bots, and never arriving at
compromises with the stamp of broad legitimacy.
It’s not a coincidence that the right’s political playbook is so
intertwined with this kind of disinformation and weakening of democracy.
A widely held belief on the political right is that the most important
“freedom” is private property rights, and since rich people are always
outnumbered by poor people, subscribers to this ideology hold that
“freedom is incompatible with democracy,” because in a fair vote, the
majority 99% will vote to redistribute the fortunes of the minority 1%.
In this conception, the rich are the only “oppressed minority” who can’t
be defended by democracy.
This gives rise to the right’s belief in natural hierarchies, which are
sorted out by markets, with the best people rising to the top (Boris Johnson:
“As many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about
2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the
easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.”).
The right’s position, fundamentally, is that the “best” people should
boss everyone else around for their own good: kings should boss around
commoners (monarchists); slavers should boss around enslaved people
(white nationalists); husbands should boss around wives and kids
(Dominionists); America should boss around the world (imperialists); and
rich people should boss around workers (capitalists).
So when Reagan started cracking wise about “The nine most terrifying
words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here
to help,’” he was kicking off a long project to discredit the US and
its institutions in favor of autocrats, the mythological heroes of Ayn
Rand novels whose singular vision was so true and right that it didn’t
need peer review, checks and balances, or anyone who might speak truth
to power. He was initiating the process that led the Trump
administration’s army of think-tankies to dismantle the US government’s multibillion-dollar institutions
charged with defending us from food poisoning, plutonium spills, unsafe
workplaces, tornadoes and starvation: in the autocrat’s view of the
world, these institutions’ word cannot be taken at face value, because
every institution is just a pawn for its bosses’ and workers’ personal
ambitions, featherbedding and pocket-lining.
Unsurprisingly then, Farrell and Schneier’s recommended countermeasures
for disinformation campaigns cut directly against the right’s most
cherished policies: get rid of Citizens United and the idea that secret
money can fund US political campaigns; limit financial secrecy and make
it harder for anyone to claim that US political movements are the
inauthentic expression of manipulative foreign disinformation campaigns.
Alongside financial transparency, the authors suggest that vigorous
antitrust enforcement, possibly with reclassification of online services
as public utilities, would help curb the deployment of ranking
algorithms that elevate “engagement” over all else, leading to spirals
that drive users to ever-more-extreme and unfounded views and
communities (weirdly, this is the one highly selective instance in which
the right is calling for a return to pre-Reagan antitrust fundamentals).