How to Respond to Attempts to Undermine Our Democracy

Time magazine has good article on the way Russians are using social media and the internet to way a cyberpropaganda war. This sums up the situation well in my view:

Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events in the U.S. by manipulating public opinion. The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces. “Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it’s becoming easier every day,” says Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corp., who ran a major Pentagon research program to understand the propaganda threats posed by social media technology.

Basically, the internet/social media is Disneyland for the Russians. There’s a lot of good information, and I recommend reading the whole article. However, in this thread, I want to riff on the last paragraph, and touch on the way forward.

Before I begin, it’s crucial to remember that the using the internet and social media are only one way the Russians (and other hostile foreign powers) can attack and weaken our country. Other ways can involve corrupting influential individuals in the society or supporting and cultivating political extremists, who could lead political movements that divide the country.

But in this thread, I wont to focus on responding to threats to our democracy that occur largely through the internet. Here’s the last paragraph:

For now, investigators have added the names of specific trolls and botnets to their wall charts in the offices of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. They say the best way to compete with the Russian model is by having a better message. “It requires critical thinkers and people who have a more powerful vision” than the cynical Russian view, says former NSA deputy Inglis. And what message is powerful enough to take on the firehose of falsehoods that Russia is deploying in targeted, effective ways across a range of new media? One good place to start: telling the truth.

That phrase, “telling the truth” leads to several different thoughts:

1. The free press should be considered a national security priority. A strong press, with enough resources, to not only have the manpower to do thorough reporting, but enough of stable revenue stream, reducing the deleterious effects of commercial pressure. Yes, I’m thinking specifically of government funding–a lot of it; at least I think we should seriously consider that. We don’t want to copy Russia’s approach. To counter it, we need institution, like, but not exclusive to, the press–institutions that will help citizens manage information overload, help them shift through facts and prioritize and find meaning in information. These institutions need to also win the trust of all Americans, from the left, right and center ideologically.

2. We need to reaffirm and reexamine our commitment to Enlightenment principles and find ways to strengthen and protect them in a world where millions of people use the internet as their primary source of information and public discourse. Just as the Russians are modifying and refashioning their expertise in propaganda/active measures for the internet, we, in the West, need to find ways to we protect and strengthen the critical values and principles necessary for a healthy democracy. We need to build spaces or institutions for thoughtful, civil discourse–discourse based on shared set of facts, sound arguments and mutual respect. (There’s a lot more to say on this, but that’s all I’ll say for now.)

3. We need to expose the world to what the Russians are doing. Part of this should involve crafting a narrative to convey this. What the Russians are doing are brilliant and clever–I admire it on some level. They perceived an opportunity and seized it. But if my understand of what they’re doing is correct, there is one fatal flaw in this approach: it’s totally despicable and diabolical. Think of a co-worker who behaved like a Machiavellian on steroids–the person have almost no ethical or moral restraints as to the lengths they would go to obtain power. Once the other co-workers realized this, the person would be finished, in my view. They would be enemy #1. This is my understanding of what Russia is doing. They’re like the Loki among the nations. The job of the West is get this message out there. (One idea: make some movies about this. There is terrific fodder for Hollywood movies in this.)

4. Exposure of what Russia is doing should also involve education into their tactics. I feel like being aware of the various tactics is half the battle.

5. In addition to re-examining and reaffirming commitment to Enlightenment values, we also need to do the same for our system of government and even the rule of law. We need need a history listen and a vigorous public discourse about these things.

One important part of this, in my view, should involve a very nuanced treatment about these principles and values we embrace. For example, our country may genuinely embrace the rule of law, democracy, civil rights, but in practice, we sometimes compromise these things–sometimes for understandable reasons, and sometimes for unjustified reasons. As a nation, we need to understand that this doesn’t mean that we don’t really value civil liberties, human rights, democracy, etc. Equally important, we must realize there is a difference between democratic nations that are genuinely striving to stay true to their principles versus authoritarian regimes that really don’t care about any of these things. Autocrats like Putin wants people to believe there is no difference, because that helps him. I believe there is a difference, and if we see that–and help our country to stay as close to our values and principles as we can, we will be different and we can defeat autocractic regimes that threaten us.

10 Responses to “How to Respond to Attempts to Undermine Our Democracy”

  1. Mitchell

    I have opinions about this, but I’m hesitant to jump in because we’re going to disagree on major things, we’re going to each go to our usual (core, I guess) beliefs, and neither of us is going to convince the other of anything. And we may latch on to two or three little things to bicker about but not really make any headway on. I’ll bet you can probably predict what my responses will be to each of your main points or suggestions, in fact. Do you think this is what happens to married people when they’ve been married thirty years? Do they just stop communicating because even if a topic is kind of new, they each already knows what the other is going to say and think?

  2. Reid

    Do they just stop communicating because even if a topic is kind of new, they each already knows what the other is going to say and think?

    For new topics? I guess it would depend on how easy it is to see connections between the new topic and the person’s general outlook and beliefs. For example, I’m not exactly sure what specific points you will disagree with–and to what degree, if you do. I can guess what things you will disagree with generally, and the extent to which you will disagree with them. Then again, I feel like I’ve been surprised in the past before, where I anticipate a certain response, and you respond differently.

    By the way, do you see the problem I’m describing–a hostile actor like Russia marrying active measures with the Internet and social media? (I would guess you see this as a problem, but not as big a problem as I do.)

  3. Reid

    Another Thought

    If people are squeamish about a lot more federal funding for the media, what about federal funding for domestic peace corps–i.e., a “press corps.” Citizens could give one or two years of their lives assisting journalists–e.g., doing research on stories. This would provide manpower that many news outlets lack, and the news agencies would screen and oversee them. This might a less problematic way of getting resources to the press.

  4. Mitchell

    It would be a far less problematic way. You can’t call it a press corps because that phrase already has another meaning. Would they be volunteers for those two years? I wonder how this would work within the structure of the unions. I know papers and TV news programs have interns all the time, and they’re all unionized, so there must be a way.

  5. Reid

    I wasn’t thinking of calling these individuals “press corps”–I just used that to give a sense of what I mean–e.g., peace corps for the press. (shrugs)

    I have no idea if it would be volunteer or for pay–I haven’t thought that far.

  6. Mitchell

    Right. I wasn’t being critical of the non-suggested name. I was just pointing out that we couldn’t call it that.

  7. Reid

    Something Politicians Can Do to Indirectly Address the Problem: Make Government Work Again

    I really liked The Collapse of Public Trust is Dangerous to Lawmakers–and They Can Fix It, a Business Insider article by Josh Barro. He’s not really directly addressing my issue–he’s addressing the collapse of public trust in our government and politicians, some thoughts on what contributed to that, and how we could increase trust. It just so happens that improving trust will also shore up our defense against attacks by Russia and other hostile entities that employ the same approach. Here are some of his suggestions:

    I think the best way to turn down the temperature about Washington is for politicians to do their jobs well: Listen to your constituents. Say your opponents’ ideas are exactly as bad as you think they are, but no worse. Pass laws that are popular.

    Ensure the federal government is taking the necessary steps to prevent unforeseen disasters similar to the ones that wrecked institutional credibility over the last two decades, like 9/11 and the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina and the financial crash.

    Take extra steps to demonstrate your lack of conflicts of interest, since that’s extra important at a time when the public takes such a dim view of politicians’ integrity and effectiveness.

    Eschew no-choice politics; it makes people angry and cynical.

    Try to find some policy areas that aren’t zero-sum, where Republicans and Democrats can make a show of working together, even if it’s mostly to demonstrate that mommy and daddy don’t fight all the time.

  8. Reid

    #6: Always Be Conscious of Russian Objectives

    Here’s an example of a political leader who may be losing site of Russian objectives, which provides a backdrop that we should always be mindful of:

    Assuming Schiff said this because he felt voters needed to know and that this would help Clinton, I disagree with him. Strangely enough, I think this is the lesser concern–Schiff should be more concerned about something else–namely, Russia’s objective of causing chaos by undermining faith in democratic processes, institutions and leaders. In my view, this actually poses a potentially bigger threat than Trump winning. For example, if Clinton won, but the doubts about the legitimacy of the outcome were much more significant, to larger numbers of Americans–and Trump and the GOP continued to fuel these perceptions after the election–I’d argue we could be worse off as a country. (I believe McConnell was informed of this, and he threatened to accuse the Obama administration of interfering and there’s little doubt that Trump would definitely make this accusation.)

    Whatever our leaders try to do, they have to keep in mind the Russian objective of trying to undermine faith in our institutions, democratic values, political leaders; we have to be aware that they’re trying to exploit existing divisions in our country, attempting to widen it to weaken us.

    Therefore, as we go about trying to prevent bad policies or actions by Trump, consider if doing this will undermine faith in our political system and institutions; as we criticize political leaders, processes, and institutions, avoid careful not irresponsibly and unintentionally undermine the faith in these things. Carefully examine whether these criticisms truly warrant total distrust, and if not, choose your words carefully to avoid unintentionally eroding the faith in these crucial aspects of our democracy; as we challenge the opposing party, mitigate any polarizing effects–and work to identify common ground and other ways to bring Americans together rather than push us a part.

    Russia is trying to tear us a part and undermine our faith in our government and institutions. We can’t lose sight of that when we engage in our domestic politics.


    When I hear Jeh Johnson’s response, I think: This is the right attitude, showing the awareness I mentioned above. Had the Obama administration made the Russian interference a bigger deal, this could have been aiding Russian objectives.

    Edit (6/22/2017)

    By the way, I do think Obama should have done more–in terms of preventing Russian attack. I also think there’s some validity to criticizing Obama for not retaliating sufficiently. However, I would add that I don’t get the sense that a lot of our political leaders know exactly what could have been done with regard to both–I still don’t think there is a strong consensus about both now.

  9. Reid

    Mieke Eoyang and Evelyn Farkas, Ben Freeman, and Gary Ashkkroft: The Last Straw: Responding To Russia’s Anti-Western Aggression

  10. Reid

    Cyber-security vs. Information-security

    I thought this– Fake News Fight: Cyber-security Provides Little Defense Against Information War was a really important article by Chris Zappone of The Sydney Morning Herald

    He makes, what I think, is an important distinction between cyber-security and information security:

    Broadly, cyber security is seen as a technological discipline that involves securing computers and networks against hacking, viruses and malicious activity. It doesn’t address the question of content.

    Information security extends beyond cyber security to the protection of a political system by seeking to control the “information space” of the surrounding public and society.

    On the globalised platform of the internet, authoritarian governments like those of Russia and China, who want to control their information space, and democracies that rely on an open but unpolluted commons, are colliding.

    I can sense that the notion of information security, as described in the second paragraph, will begin raising the hackles of people like Mitchell. The description largely comes from the perspective of authoritarian regimes, but democratic societies must now think about information security, albeit in a much different way, since authoritarian regimes, like Russian, are waging information warfare.

    The Russian approach is just as much psychological as it it technological. These efforts are used to shape perceptions and feelings–including exacerbating existing social divisions, undermining the faith in leaders and critical institutions in an adversary’s society. The goal is also to create confusion and doubt about evidence and information:

    Recent thinking in Russian information war focuses on conflict in a globalised “psychosphere” – people’s minds and imaginations, independent of political and military boundaries.

    Taking a strategic approach to news, websites, trolling and posting on social media, but also cable TV networks like Russia-backed RT and Sputnik, pop culture and spectacle, Russia has worked to render all information and news sources equally suspect in the minds of Western citizens.

    The use of conspiracy theory, combined with amplified news about terror attacks and sexual violence, helps sow confusion and distrust in Western publics, which in turn corrodes faith in evidence.

    “All these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason,” writes Peter Pomerantsev. “If the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

    From that point, a society becomes much more vulnerable to manipulation. A recent report on so-called “alternative narratives” and conspiracy theories found on Twitter drives home the point. In a 10-month examination of the “alternative media ecosystem” found on Twitter, Washington University’s Kate Starbird concluded there was “evidence of intentional disinformation tactics designed not to spread a specific ideology but to undermine trust in information generally”.

    These sorts of “Leninist information tactics … aimed to spread confusion and ‘muddled thinking’ … as a way of controlling a society.”

    Our society must respond to this threat. But not the authoritarian regimes attempt to provide information security–i.e., heavy-handed government control of information.

    I’ve thrown out some ideas of how we have to respond. The first that comes to mind is strengthening the free press–making them more capable of doing their jobs better, including finding ways to increase the public’s trust of the press.

    I think we need to explicitly talk about what separates journalism and state propaganda. We need to be aware of warfare intentionally designed to undermine the public faith in institutions and political leaders. This idea may seem far-fetched or abstract, but our leaders need to convey that these threats are real.

    Zappone also makes a real good point about a blindspot among internet activists in the West:

    The leading lights of internet freedom – focusing on online rights – have almost nothing to say about an internet used to sow false and divisive ideas in the public sphere….

    …The focus is on keeping the government out of data, ensuring privacy and supporting free expression online, all of which are important principles to defend.

    But none of them address complex organised efforts to subvert, constrain or discredit stable, legitimate democracy using information.

    (emphasis added)

    Concern over the government and privacy, etc. is totally warranted. But we also have to be concerned about hostile actors attacking key democratic institutions and principles essential for political discourse. Maybe we can’t imagine that someone would do this? Maybe some believe better critical thinking skills practiced by individuals will solve this problem? Or maybe people don’t like thinking about this because the implications might be a government response to deal with this threat–and that’s something they don’t want to give any ground toward?

    One last quote:

    And so today, when discussing influence efforts coordinated online on bots and social media – the focus on technology, and the hope for a technological solution – may actually blind people to the ultimate intended effects of campaigns, which can be more psychological in nature.

    I recommend reading the entire article.

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.