Using information security to explain why disinformation makes autocracies stronger and democracies weaker

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 Milo Yiannopoulos).

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).

For example, before the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government had extensive control over common knowledge. It required everyone to publicly support the regime, making it hard for citizens to know how many other people hated it, and it prevented potential anti-regime coalitions from organizing. However, it didn’t pay attention in time to Facebook, which allowed citizens to talk more easily about how much they detested their rulers, and, when an initial incident sparked a protest, to rapidly organize mass demonstrations against the regime. The Arab Spring faltered in many countries, but it is no surprise that countries like Russia see the Internet openness agenda as a knife at their throats.

Democracies, in contrast, are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge. If people disagree on the results of an election, or whether a census process is accurate, then democracy suffers. Similarly, if people lose any sense of what the other perspectives in society are, who is real and who is not real, then the debate and argument that democracy thrives on will be degraded. This is what seems to be Russia’s aims in their information campaigns against the US: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together. This is also the situation that writers like Adrien Chen and Peter Pomerantsevdescribe in today’s Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair.

This difference explains how the same policy measure can increase the stability of one form of regime and decrease the stability of the other. We have already seen that open information flows have benefited democracies while at the same time threatening autocracies. In our language, they transform regime-supporting contested political knowledge into regime-undermining common political knowledge. And much more recently, we have seen other uses of the same information flows undermining democracies by turning regime-supported common political knowledge into regime-undermining contested political knowledge.

In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society.

Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy [Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier/ Berkman Klein Center Research Publication No. 2018-7]

Democracy as an information system [Henry Farrell/Crooked Timber]