Information Attacks against Democracies

Democracy is an information system.

That’s the starting place of our new paper: “Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy.” In it, we look at democracy through the lens of information security, trying to understand the current waves of Internet disinformation attacks. Specifically, we wanted to explain why the same disinformation campaigns that act as a stabilizing influence in Russia are destabilizing in the United States.

The answer revolves around the different ways autocracies and democracies work as information systems. We start by differentiating between two types of knowledge that societies use in their political systems. The first is common political knowledge, which is the body of information that people in a society broadly agree on. People agree on who the rulers are and what their claim to legitimacy is. People agree broadly on how their government works, even if they don’t like it. In a democracy, people agree about how elections work: how districts are created and defined, how candidates are chosen, and that their votes count­—even if only roughly and imperfectly.

We contrast this with a very different form of knowledge that we call contested political knowledge, which is, broadly, things that people in society disagree about. Examples are easy to bring to mind: how much of a role the government should play in the economy, what the tax rules should be, what sorts of regulations are beneficial and what sorts are harmful, and so on.

This seems basic, but it gets interesting when we contrast both of these forms of knowledge across autocracies and democracies. These two forms of government have incompatible needs for common and contested political knowledge.

For example, democracies draw upon the disagreements within their population to solve problems. Different political groups have different ideas of how to govern, and those groups vie for political influence by persuading voters. There is also long-term uncertainty about who will be in charge and able to set policy goals. Ideally, this is the mechanism through which a polity can harness the diversity of perspectives of its members to better solve complex policy problems. When no-one knows who is going to be in charge after the next election, different parties and candidates will vie to persuade voters of the benefits of different policy proposals.

But in order for this to work, there needs to be common knowledge both of how government functions and how political leaders are chosen. There also needs to be common knowledge of who the political actors are, what they and their parties stand for, and how they clash with each other. Furthermore, this knowledge is decentralized across a wide variety of actors­—an essential element, since ordinary citizens play a significant role in political decision making.

Contrast this with an autocracy. There, common political knowledge about who is in charge over the long term and what their policy goals are is a basic condition of stability. Autocracies do not require common political knowledge about the efficacy and fairness of elections, and strive to maintain a monopoly on other forms of common political knowledge. They actively suppress common political knowledge about potential groupings within their society, their levels of popular support, and how they might form coalitions with each other. On the other hand, they benefit from contested political knowledge about nongovernmental groups and actors in society. If no one really knows which other political parties might form, what they might stand for, and what support they might get, that itself is a significant barrier to those parties ever forming.

This difference has important consequences for security. Authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to information attacks that challenge their monopoly on common political knowledge. They are vulnerable to outside information that demonstrates that the government is manipulating common political knowledge to their own benefit. And they are vulnerable to attacks that turn contested political knowledge­—uncertainty about potential adversaries of the ruling regime, their popular levels of support and their ability to form coalitions­—into common political knowledge. As such, they are vulnerable to tools that allow people to communicate and organize more easily, as well as tools that provide citizens with outside information and perspectives.

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 Pomerantsev describe 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-supporting 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.

This framework not only helps us understand how different political systems are vulnerable and how they can be attacked, but also how to bolster security in democracies. First, we need to better defend the common political knowledge that democracies need to function. That is, we need to bolster public confidence in the institutions and systems that maintain a democracy. Second, we need to make it harder for outside political groups to cooperate with inside political groups and organize disinformation attacks, through measures like transparency in political funding and spending. And finally, we need to treat attacks on common political knowledge by insiders as being just as threatening as the same attacks by foreigners.

There’s a lot more in the paper.

This essay was co-authored by Henry Farrell, and previously appeared on

Posted on November 21, 2018 at 7:48 AM57 Comments


Insider November 21, 2018 9:28 AM

“People agree on who the rulers are and what their claim to legitimacy is.”

In the US, people passionately disagree about rulers’ claim to legitimacy. One side was convinced that Obama had no claim to legitimacy, the other side is convinced that Trump has no claim to legitimacy.

“In a democracy, people agree about how elections work: how districts are created and defined, how candidates are chosen, and that their votes count — even if only roughly and imperfectly.”

Not if they can gerrymander the districts, subvert the choosing of candidates, and/or disenfranchise those who might vote for the other side.

“And finally, we need to treat attacks on common political knowledge by insiders as being just as threatening as the same attacks by foreigners.”

Attacks on common political knowledge by insiders are much more threatening than the same attacks by foreigners. Foreigners achieve disruption, but insiders may achieve autocracy.

vas pup November 21, 2018 10:16 AM

Just some thoughts:
First, lets agree on definition: republican form of government <> democracy. Democracy is the political regime which has spectrum nature. We could have highly democratic monarchy (Norway, Sweden, Netherlands)or republic (e.g. Switzerland, Finland). Political regime in democracy assume the right to dissent without being accused or punished (openly – RF, China or secretly – kind of stop by your employer or/and landlord and talk BS about you with gag order – you know what I am talking about)of disloyalty. Autocracy has a key feature: for it promoters dissent = disloyalty. They want ALL march in columns and think uniformly. So, between extreme political regimes (North Korea, Iran on the negative end of spectrum and Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands on the positive) all other regimes (Russia, China, US, Germany, etc. are in between). What is the criteria within that scale? Level of happiness of the most part of their population combined with rating of the country as good place to live (medical care, crime rate, real rule of law, education – you name it).
Regarding government and taxes: who will object higher level of taxes if those taxes basically return back (not tax return) to the regular folks who is paying them as social benefits: affordable health care, security – in broad sense – national and local (safety, low crime rate, effective LEAs), education, science, culture, etc. Who will object government activity when not only pre-election promises are made, but they are implemented into the life as a rule after election? You may not be fan of current POTUS, but his uniqueness – he follows almost ALL his pre-election promises except “Wall is going to be paid by Mexican side”. I’d like to see MERITOCRACY as main criteria of recruiting to the government.
The main difference in autocracy are (1)selective application of law: ‘For friends everything – for others -law’. Friends are those who are not dissent (in broad sense of word) – they are blind loyalists. As usually, any logical critics of my point of view appreciated based on blog’s policy. Personal attacks – are not.

Winter November 21, 2018 10:17 AM

“In the US, people passionately disagree about rulers’ claim to legitimacy. One side was convinced that Obama had no claim to legitimacy, the other side is convinced that Trump has no claim to legitimacy. ”

This would mean that the legitimacy of the USA itself has already been destroyed.

What I understand from the other side of the ocean is that the demographic developments inside the USA are in the long time working against the Republican party.

Instead of trying to connect to new voters, it seems the GOP has decided to attack democracy itself instead. Also, both parties have come under strong influence of oligarchs which already delegitimizes the voting process on its own. Again, the Republicans are worst affected.

Both parties are involved in gerrymandering, voter suppression, and anti-democracy propaganda. But the GOP beats the Democrats at this by a very wide margin.

If we compare the effects of this propaganda in the USA with those in other countries, it seems the USA was simply ripe for the picking. The two parties have done their best to destroy the legitimacy of the voting process from the inside. Not much help was needed from the outside.

Clive Robinson November 21, 2018 10:19 AM

@ Bruce,

My usuall point,

    The majority of so called Democracies are not democracies within the meaning of the word, but actually “Representative Democracies”… Where you vote for a person to make decisions for you. Thus more correctly they are “An abdication of responsability” or “Naked theft” depending on your viewpoint.

It should be obvious to anyone that a “beauty pagent of con artists” is not the best way to represent the views of the citizens alowed to vote every half decade or so.

In effect we have democracies where we vote, but only for those who have been selected by others we have no control of. Thus it does not matter if that choice is made by a military Junta or a Kleptocracy of money men…

Humdee November 21, 2018 11:06 AM

I am not sure what intellectual work is being done by the distinction being drawn between common and contested political knowledge. If I understand the paper correctly the difference between common political knowledge and contested political knowledge is the difference between topics we are interested in having conversations about and topics we are no longer interested in having conversations about. But what conversations are those? Take the MI court’s recent decision saying that laws banning female genital mutilation are unconstitutional. One side is saying, “look this practice is despicable and has been outlawed worldwide, it is part of our common political knowledge to reject this practice” and the other side is saying, “it is contestable and that contest should take place at the state rather than the federal level”. Which boils down to one side saying “this conversation is over” and the other side saying “not yet.” So the only interesting discussion is the metaconversational discussion about what topics we as a community wish to talk about and which ones we don’t.

The observation that autocracies and democracies exist in different conversational matrices is banal.

Kent Brockman November 21, 2018 11:33 AM

“But in order for this to work, there needs to be common knowledge both of how government functions and how political leaders are chosen. ”

Unfortunately, it’s only too much common knowledge how this is done here. We live in a capitalistic/militaristic empire intent on global domination in all spheres, and only those who will perpetuate same will sniff any real power. We have our freedoms(what’s left of them) only as long as we don’t step out of line. Any country that would impose the abomination that is the Patriot Act on it’s citizenry has no right to be called a democracy(or even a republic). It has ceased to have any difference ( materially ) which politician is plugged into the locked-down system, only those “vetted” will be admitted and in order to stay in they will conform absolutely to the continuance of empire. The brand of “democracy” practiced here is a fig leaf worn by a ravenous beast.

Sergey November 21, 2018 12:56 PM

The problem with this reasoning is that Russia is not formally an autocracy. Formally it’s a democracy, although subverted by a powerful political force that managed to gain the monopoly position. It is the force that manipulates the elections both directly (by faking the results by adding and replacing the votes) and indirectly (by organizing the fake demonstrations and protests with paid participants, and intimidating the opponents by violence from both police and from its own thug “protesters”) to its benefit. The public information about such manipulations is to the direct detriment of this force, and for this reason it acts to suppress this information.

But the public information of such manipulations is in the public interest. It it what makes the public demand the election process to be more transparent, to involve the observers from all the political forces on all stages of elections, and to adopt the features against fraud. The subversive monopolistic force fights against such measures.

Now, does this description of the monopolistic political force remind you of anything in the US politics?

Nick November 21, 2018 1:20 PM

You are missing one big area. What happens when governments keep things secret, such as the harm they cause?

That means the electorate cannot make an informed decision.

For example, here is the definition of a debt or liability that should appear on the balance sheet on accounts.

In financial accounting, a liability is defined as the future sacrifices of economic benefits that the entity is obliged to make to other entities as a result of past transactions or other past events,[1] the settlement of which may result in the transfer or use of assets, provision of services or other yielding of economic benefits in the future.

Economic benefit is cash, goods and services.

People have worked for the state in the past, and are owed a pension in the future
People have paid the state in the past for a future payment of their retirement income.

Pensions are items that should appear on the books.

Governments do not report them. The reason is they don’t want the public to know and work out the consequences of the decision to spend the contributions as fast as they come in.

So for the US, the pension debts are $230 trillion dollars rising with inflation. That’s $1.5 million per tax payer.

That’s hidden by politicians because they know they can’t pay. If they admit they can’t pay why would people pay in and lose the lot?

Hidden knowledge like this needs to be included as one of the problems.

Timothy November 21, 2018 1:47 PM

The paper, that is very well thought out by the way, is organized in the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • Common and Contested Political Knowledge
  • Democracies and Autocracies as Information Systems
  • The Attack Surfaces of Autocracies and Democracies
  • Democracy Defenses
  • Conclusions

The ‘Democracy Defenses’ section, as it states, lays out a set of general priorities that could help facilitate conversations that may lead to future policy development.

One of the priorities mentions how “attacks by outsiders can be greatly facilitated when insiders provide specific information and (some times inadvertent) help.” Considerations are given to public disinformation, the difficulties of tracking political spending, etc. and several good examples are provided.

To add to that, Thomas Rid who is also doing a lot of work on disinformation campaigns recently tweeted a May NYT article “When Spies Hack Journalism.” From the article:

The problem was that Russian hackers chose not to deliver to American voters the same inside material from the Trump campaign. The tilt of the coverage was decided in Moscow. By counting on American reporters to follow their usual rules, the Kremlin hacked American journalism.

I believe the community strongly agrees that democracy’s information systems must be defined and protected. When Twitter testified at the September 2018 Senate hearing on foreign influence, Twitter conceded: “We also recognize that, as a private company, there are threats that we cannot understand and address alone. We must continue to work together with our elected officials, government partners, industry peers, outside experts, and other stakeholders so that the American people and the global community can understand the full context in which these threats arise.”

In the testimony Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey discusses safety measures the company is currently taking. One of those safety measures addresses the access of public tweet data by developers and other third parties via API’s. For example, Twitter advises that during a three-month period in 2018, Twitter removed over 143,000 applications they determined were in violation of their developer policies, mostly against policies that prohibit producing spam via APIs. New review and accountability rules were also applied.

David Leppik November 21, 2018 2:46 PM


In the US, Democrats refer to Donald Trump as “president”. The don’t do so for Clinton. This distinction is why there is no coup, civil war, or shadow government vying to convince the court to treat Trump’s declarations as those of a deranged citizen. Other countries have gone that route.

You may not think that Trump is legitimate in the sense of being properly qualified or having won fairly. However, the US populace as a whole accepts the outcome of the election, even if they question the means.

The argument is that it’s better to have an unfair system that everyone agrees on because the alternative is essentially no system at all.

Bruce’s framing of this in terms of common vs. contested political knowledge strikes me as another way to describe “divide and conquer”, but one that has interesting implications. For example, Trump has always preferred unilateral agreements–or no agreement at all– over multi-party treaties, to the point of pulling the US out of a number of treaties. The net effect is that other countries have no idea what the US will do next. This makes it hard to do business with the US, while it strengthens Trump’s hand to lend favors to personal allies. One might say he’s throwing the US economy under a bus (longer term) so that he can hand-pick who gets tariffs. Open markets thrive on common trade knowledge, while crony capitalism thrives on contested trade knowledge. Trump has a history in the latter.

Ross Snider November 21, 2018 3:28 PM

Information control is used to govern no matter what kind of governance is in place. The methods/forms/venues for this information control take different characteristics. In the setting of geostrategic competition between governing bodies, this information setting is a historic (also, with information technology, burgeoning) arena for competition. Information attacks have changed character with new technologies, but have been a mainstay of intelligence services for thousands of years.

My personal politics find that our current age is guilded and highly unequal, and that the upper classes and wealthy interests and families dominate domestic politics. In my personal politics, I’ve followed information control used by national information services to control the public (e.g. domestic propaganda used to direct public attention and interests in support of national competition objectives – like the Iraq and Syrian war) and to benefit the American classist society.

There’s been a lot of public commoner focus on compeditors of the United States and “enemies abroad”. Generally, I’ve always been more concerned about the more immediate consequences of domestic information warfare against the lower American political classes.

jdgalt November 21, 2018 4:32 PM

The big problem with our republic is that the big media have become so corrupt that “the news” is all fake news — and those same huge companies also control most of the Internet, so they are able, not only to ban dissidents from Facebook and Twitter, often right before elections, but also to get the plug pulled (or bank services denied) to dissident competitors like Gab.

It’s imperative that nobody from either side have the ability to do these things any more. Silence dissidents and shout down whistleblowers who report election fraud, and you take away the first three of the Four Boxes on which our freedom rests. Do you really want to force the Right to open #4?

PeaceHead November 21, 2018 4:34 PM

Interesting synopsis.
In the long tradition of internet forums:


In today’s America, no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets.

*=pseudo-meta-satyrical commentary

Thanks for deepening the conversations of conversations.
“On Fear” is still a good read for those of us who are NOT 5150’s.

Sancho_P November 21, 2018 5:43 PM

At first I thought it makes a funny reading, hilarious –
Then I learned @Bruce co-authored it.
That’s sad.

Men in Black November 21, 2018 6:25 PM

Security issues rise in the ranks.

  1. technical
  2. business
  3. legal
  4. political
  5. military

We are looking at 3+4+5 with lawfare.

Phaete November 21, 2018 7:31 PM

Welcome to the age of disinformation.
Whether it are companies, political entities or fringe (flat earth etc), they all massage the truth, or even outright lie.

Is fake news something we are going to have to live with, like that cousin that exaggerates his caught fish sizes(although he never influenced elections).

I think we just need to get used to it and train our collective social credibility ranking like we have with old media (magazines for instance).

David Days November 21, 2018 8:36 PM

In early 2016, I was having a deep political discussion with the family and I had made the argument that “government is, at heart, what everyone believes it to be.”

Basically, I was saying that monarchies work when enough people believe in and follow the rules of the monarchy, democracies/republics work when everyone believes in the supporting institutions, and even dictatorships work (for a while) if enough of everyone believes/follows the system in place.

My point at that time was that a lot of voters at many levels (and those who could soon be in power) didn’t have the same understanding of what the US government is, based on the rhetoric that was being thrown around. This would lead to problems for them if they gained authority, as what they believed they could do collided with the more general beliefs of what a government is allowed to do.

That was my layman’s hand-waving explanation of the overall situation–I’m excited to see some serious effort in defining this more clearly. Hopefully the concepts in this paper will catch hold in the world and start making a difference, a la “security theater”.

Curious November 22, 2018 4:33 AM

“Democracy is an information system.”

This kind of writing is why I don’t bother visiting this blog that much anymore. This kind of writing does not seem sincere to me, but the opposite.

I don’t mind opinions that have to do with society in general, but I think such claims using buzzwords this way in simply saying X is Y with no qualifiers and no personal argument have the effect of trying to build a logic (use of words in language) by which an intent here might have been to then re-use this particular buzzword “democracy” later in the text for injecting any desired claim retroactively onto anything that is related or understood as an ‘information system’, and the same the other way with “information system” onto “democracy”. In any case, the claim made is not even one that takes on the appearance of being an analogy, and that would be dumb, as if I have to take your word for it to be true as a factual statement or as an idea even.

I guess what I have described would so to speak be like juggling with two notions that are typically unrelated, and the third, an idea, which spells out a claim that the other two are equal, but only insofar as being yet another claim without a sensible explanation.

I will have to find the will and the time to read this text now that I started commenting on it 😐

JohnB November 22, 2018 6:50 AM

Bruce – what about when common political knowledge, which is not factually true or accurate, is instilled into the population, in order to shape society and the economy?

Todays consensus in the field of economics – largely following neoclassical economic views – arguably does precisely this.

There is a better framework which is being suppressed and held outside of common political knowledge – this is the Post-Keynesian school of economics (not at all the same as colloquial Keynesian economics, as that mixes in neoclassical views…).

This is common political knowledge (neoclassical economics), that must be turned into contested political knowledge, and replaced with new common political knowledge (Post-Keynesian economics), in order to fairly run democracies, all over the world.

The way you framed your argument though, suggests that attacking the current common political knowledge, would instead be a threat to democracy.

The key thing you don’t seem to mention regarding common political knowledge, is whether or not it should be defended, if it is false or inaccurate. That’s a significant thing missing from your post.

SmedleyMcPhee November 22, 2018 9:14 AM

It’s not just in the USA: There’s a serious problem in Canada with one of the issues identified:

“Second, we need to make it harder for outside political groups to cooperate with inside political groups and organize disinformation attacks, through measures like transparency in political funding and spending.”

In Canada we have a huge amount of foreign meddling in the policy towards oil pipelines and oilsands development: Some of this is coming from extreme environmentalist groups but it’s also coming from pro-rail anti-pipeline capitalists who are making a killing transporting Canadian oil by rail.

The failure of the current Canadian government to expose the foreign interference in Canadian policy and business is appalling.

Faustus November 22, 2018 11:24 AM

@ Bruce + Nick & Ross & All

Thanks for making the paper freely available. I think it makes a useful distinction between common knowledge and contested knowledge. And its tone is useful: Calm and deliberative rather than shrill and apocalyptic.

Everybody involved goes home to their family and loved ones. I don’t think constant denunciations of each other serve us. We need to talk to each other calmly and with a sense of shared humanity, and with a sense of the shared imperfections that humanity implies.

As Nick points out: It is important that we recognize that democracy (including its variants and offshoots like republicanism and representative democracy) only really has meaning if people have accurate information about what their country is doing. An important function of voting is to provide a check on our leadership, which requires transparency.

You do talk about openness, but I’d like to see openness/transparency emphasized in the model. As Ross points out, all forms of government play “hide the truth”. A state misrepresenting or hiding its actions from its people is an authoritarian state, or at least a budding one. A democratic government should not itself impede the accuracy of common political knowledge. At the least such obstruction leads to justified mistrust in the government that makes malicious information attacks more viable.

I suspect that a benign country need hide little and that secrecy principally serves to protect insiders and allow them to benefit from information asymmetry, rather than protecting the state itself. Even in a democracy almost all politicians lean towards authoritarianism when it comes to their own power. I suspect that politics simply attracts people who lie on the scary side of the psychopathology scale.

Maybe nobody should be allowed to be in office for more than a few years. Even people who are in high level non-elected positions. Could running the country be reenvisioned as a form of national service that all citizens pass through for a couple of years? Like a jury? I don’t see any evidence that politicians get smarter the longer they are in office, just more arrogant and better able to take advantage of the system.

Bruce Schneier November 22, 2018 12:21 PM


I am going to blog that in a couple of days. I’m happy with the article, but hate hate hate the headline Motherboard gave it.

(Everyone, please save comments on that piece until I blog it.)

Timothy November 22, 2018 3:54 PM

From the paper “Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy”:

This explains the great lengths that autocracies often go to manipulate shared expectations, and to support useful public beliefs.

For example… the Tunisian autocracy was one of the “most heavily censored states on earth.” 33 It relied on an information environment in which public displays of support for the regime were mandated, informing on friends, neighbors and family was common, and dissidents were tortured and punished, so that it was difficult for individuals to know how truly unpopular the regime had become: all they could see was their own private unhappiness, and the public support shown by others.34 Even if an autocratic government is broadly detested, it may remain in power so long as the public does not realize how broadly detested it is.

Freedom House published a report called “Freedom on the Net 2018” in October 2018. The report presents narratives of 65 countries with regard to the rise of digital authoritarianism.

Each country is analyzed based on criteria like obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of users rights. The 65 countries are given a score, with 0 being the most free and 100 the least free. The US, for example, has a score of 22, the UK 23. Tunisia has a score of 38. China has a score of 88 and Russia 67.

The online report gives further details for each country, including key developments from June 2017 to May 2018. For example, in the US, the key developments were the FCC’s overturning of net neutrality provisions, the passing of a law that allows companies to censor legitimate content (to help crackdown on websites that promote prostitution, sex trafficking), the proliferation of disinformation especially on social media, and two new laws that affect data privacy and surveillance: the reauthorization of FISA’s Section 702 and the CLOUD Act.

In China, the key developments were a new cybersecurity law that increases censorship requirements and that also limits the ability of independent media to sustain themselves because of the costs of implementing it, censorship that preceded the Communist Party Congress and national legislature meetings that was in part focused on protecting Xi’s image, the government’s restriction of circumvention tools that bypass blocking and filtering like Apple’s App Store VPN services, and more.

You can also drill down further into the specifics for each country. For example, the ‘Violations of User Rights’ sections provides greater details and analysis under the subtopics of ‘Legal Environment,’ ‘Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities,’ ‘Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity,’ ‘Intimidation and Violence,’ and ‘Technical Attacks.’

There are a lot of details that are easy to access on the web version of the report. I think the framework that Bruce and Dr. Farrell provide is exceedingly helpful in organizing the relationships of key elements and how they relate. Thank you again for sharing!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Ross Williams November 22, 2018 8:54 PM

I think there is fundamental problem here. It seems to assume that “democracy” and “autocracy” are not just the only two fundamental choices as forms of government, but define that government’s central character. I think both of those are wrong.

Democracy is a tool for selecting leaders. It is an important underlying mechanism for self-government. With self-government it works as a mechanism that establishes the populace as sovereign and the government and its leaders as their servants.

But democracy can just as easily be used for autocracy, broadly defined as government where leaders rule and impose their will on the populace. In those systems democracy helps establish autocratic leaders and provides a mechanism for popular buy in and support for government decisions.

The real difference is who is being empowered by democracy, the leaders or the people.

de la Boetie November 23, 2018 4:13 AM

In the UK, taxpayers get to pay for reputable scientific and legal advice to government. However, it’s up to ministers whether or not the public ever get to see that information (or for many years, it’s hidden). While I understand that in some restricted cases, that information needs to be (briefly) private, I suggest that the actualite is heavily in favour of protection-of-politicians.

Where officially appointed government advisors tell inconvenient truths, they are commonly vilified/sacked (e.g. Professor Nutt and the dreadful, harmful drugs policy we have). Ones who tow the government line get rewarded with cushy jobs and pensions and knighthoods.

Commonly, in our delightful public-private partnerships, information is buried under Commercial-in-Confidence and NDAs. This is used quite deliberately at times to hide stuff they do not want to see the light of day. E.g. Stingray in the US.

Finally, I never really bought the narrative of how awful it was to have external influences swaying elections – my view is that the ability of other parties to stick their noses in, is just symptomatic of the already rotten state of the body politic, where government propaganda and commercial influence is already rife, and its quite obvious that the democratic government is not representing the majority of the people.

In the UK, we have about 1/200 people homeless, and the UN Rapporteur on poverty and human rights has just verified that a rich nation has inflicted “misery” on substantial numbers of its people, where 1/5 of the population are in poverty. There’s some non-fake news for the holiday period.

Petre Peter November 23, 2018 8:12 AM

The liberal environments provided by the democracies of Japan and US are the best places for my data if i can spot the disinformation campaigns aimed at these places which Ion Mihai Pacepa was talking about.

Jack November 23, 2018 8:57 AM

Political opinion posing as science is junkscience Bruce. Delete my comments all you want but at least provide some evidence for Clintons claim that Trump is a Putin-agent. And I mean real evidence, not some unsourced assesment in the Washington NeoCon Post.

Faustus November 23, 2018 10:41 AM

@ Jack

I do not see anywhere in this post or in the related document where Bruce puts forth any claim that Trump is a Putin agent, nor does he reference any similar claims from the Clintons.

@ Bruce/All

Is is possible to talk about information attacks against this blog or will it just degenerate into unproductive name calling?

I really respect how Bruce, in running this blog, is able to maintain civility and openness to varied opinions at the same time. Why can virtually no other forum do this?

Maybe it’s the low volume of posts. Or maybe Bruce has got the special sauce. All I know is that reading almost every other forum from Twitter to news media blogs to boingboing to makes me want to pound needles through my eyes.

Clive Robinson November 23, 2018 10:47 AM

@ de la Boetie,

my view is that the ability of other parties to stick their noses in, is just symptomatic of the already rotten state of the body politic where government propaganda and commercial influence is already rife,

Err it’s always been rotton to the core going back before mankind could make a record of it… As I was explaining to my son just this morning, one of the reasons that there were so many “Television” standards and even FM radio standards was “political”. In the UK have a look at why the Marine Offenses Act 67 was brought in[1] and the involvment of a very nasty and crooked politician Harold Wilson, for whom by no means is all the dirt out yet.

The usual argument was “trade protectionism” of “home industry”. However we now know the lie of that… In fact it was an attempt to stop cross border anti-propaganda in the same way as the more obvious “jamming”[1] and international treaty breaking by illegal boarding of vessels.

Oh and it continues with even more vigour today with “Digital Broadcasting” where the likes of DAB specifications have been designed so that they can not pick up anything other the “approved” stations…

With regards,

[I]ts quite obvious that the democratic government is not representing the majority of the people.

First stop calling “representational democracy” “democracy” it’s nothing of the sort, and never has been. It’s an almighty great con to “snow the citizens”. If you want to see why, ask when you last voted for a “substantive issue” (real referendum) as oposed for a “Monkey in a suit” to fill seats in the “chimps tea party” we call “Parliament” that we can currently see has no real power what so ever. Power comes from controling legislators, who in the UK are civil servants behind Ministers, neither of which were ever voted into those posts by the citizens, they were “selected” by those who do not want their “rice bowls” tipped let alone broken. If you then look at who fills those rice bowls you will see who gets their ideas “lifted up” whilst the citizens get their needs “shafted”.

What you get taught in school and later in sixth forms / college’s, and often later in University in history / civics / politics etc is mainly a bunch of lies. However tell the truth and you won’t qualify, it’s the same with economics and several other subjects related to “power”.

The simple fact is you get fed that crap as a distraction, based on the simple idea most people do not care enough, or even want to take “responsability for their lives” thus the majority will swallow it, by the bucket full… Those that do care sufficiently, unless they hide their true intent will never be alowed to get into a position where they can change anything and upset those oh so important “rice bowls”. The result as history actually shows is that “evil rules” and that usually the only way to get rid of it is at the business end of weapons. The problem as has been shown repeatedly “good people can not rule” because they lack the ruthlessness to take action thus they talk it to death and fail to take action untill well after the point there is no choice.

Thus the first thing people should do is stop calling the sham of “representational politics” democracy because it is nothing of the sort. The second is to start taking responsability for themselves.

Oh and if you want proof that representative politicians are just “turd on a blanket” have a look at countries where the elected government can not form clear majorities or even a government. For some strange reason the country does not come to a grinding halt, infact in some cases it actually functions better as there are way to many rice bowls to fill to tilt the functioning of existing legislation significantly.


MB November 23, 2018 3:44 PM

“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”.

I hear a constant drumbeat of Russia, Russia, Russia, but the word “China” is conspicuous by its absence. Does this theory apply to China at all? Does the Chinese government ever feel threatened by the Internet or the spread of accurate information? Does it ever try to create a false consensus around its policies, by deliberately spreading uncertainty about disputed political ideas?

Or is China too insignificant or too controversial to deserve mention?

Closer to home, can one ever make the claim that some post-WWII US elections were won by voting fraud and/or vote suppression? Or do such aspersions undermine the “common political knowledge” that makes democracy work? What about the recent calls for abolishing the Electoral College? Could such sustained attacks ever subvert the “common knowledge both of how government functions and how political leaders are chosen”?

How dangerous to democracy is the idea that electronic voting machines are inherently flawed, hence the accuracy of election results can no longer be guaranteed? Does it ever endanger trust in the outcome of the voting process? How threatening is the idea that the voters’ choices are often made insignificant by the existence of an entrenched bureaucracy with its own interests?

Are any of these troubling ideas “just as threatening as the same attacks by foreigners”? Should their proponents be prosecuted just as harshly?

Security Sam November 23, 2018 3:44 PM

In the system of representative democracy
The best you are going to get is mediocracy
For even though you do elect the candidate
The winner often fails to follow the mandate

Steve November 24, 2018 8:32 AM

Since early on, my own conclusion after spending time studying the subject in some detail in collaboration with a colleague at the University of California, San Diego, was that the Russian “interference” was actually fairly minimal (the Facebook ad buys, for instance were tiny in the context of the whole election — a few thousand dollars at max) and intended to be discovered (many of the ad buys — most of them, in fact — were in rubles, for “Bob’s” sake).

Even the so-called Trump Tower meeting was an intentionally ham handed charade intended to imply “collusion” — again, intended to be discovered.

The only thing the Russians didn’t do was to take out a double truck ad in the New York Times with “We meddled” in 80 point type.

As Farrell and Schneier put it in their introduction to the paper

In 2016, the Internet Research Agency, a company based in
St. Petersburg, began to post false content on US social media that
seemed intended to stir up controversy, division, and disagreement
on the facts among its readers, to the point of trying to create
both protests and counter-protests over the same issues. Many
scholars doubt whether these attacks had large-scale consequences
for behavior, but they plausibly worsened a general sense of
paranoia, doubt, and confusion among people who were increasingly
unsure what their fellow citizens believed, and (as the debate over
Internet manipulation began) which of them were fellow citizens, and
which foreign trolls or automated processes.

Much of the American histrionic left (note: I am a life long Democrat, so caveat lector) has now spent the last two years screaming about the “illegitimacy” of the Trump Administration, looking for Russians under every bed cover, and in general acting just as the Russians had hoped, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams.

Steve November 24, 2018 8:40 AM

One quick followup:

One of the things rarely mentioned in the press is that the Facebook ad buys were at the outset more or less evenly divided between the “left” and the “right” political poles — a fairly dispositive indication that the intent was not to affect the result in any particular direction but to simply taint the result of the election, no matter how it turned out.

Per Farrel and Schneier, to create “a general sense of paranoia, doubt, and confusion“.

Mission accomplished.

de la Boetie November 24, 2018 9:52 AM

@Clive Robinson – oh, I quite agree that it’s not what it claims at any point, and thanks for the analysis. I like to rail against ought versus is like anyone. I’ve had the good fortune to have been raised in a different culture to my “native” one which helps, I think, see some of the insanities and wickedness more clearly.

My point relevant to this piece though, is that external influences are something of a smokescreen, and we are particularly vulnerable because the body politic is particularly rotten.

However authoritarian and hierarchical, there tends to be a social compact in stable times, where the poorest are not left to starve. That has been lost, any social contract (e.g. like between younger and older generations) has been trashed.

I have been reading about the rise of Temuchin (Chingis Khan) in Mongolian society. One of the reasons for his meteoric rise is that he was able to unite the essentially dispossessed in the Mongoian society of the time, which was intensely hierarchical, but left the lowest to starve or live on the peripheries (as Temuchin himself did). I fear we may reap a similar whirlwind.

bttb November 24, 2018 2:39 PM


“the Russian “interference” was actually fairly minimal (the Facebook ad buys, for instance were tiny in the context of the whole election — a few thousand dollars at max”

From the bombshell “Delay, Deny, Deflect” Facebook investigation :

“Later that day [6 September 2017], the company’s abbreviated blog post went up. It said little about fake accounts or the organic posts created by Russian trolls that had gone viral on Facebook, disclosing only that Russian agents had spent roughly $100,000 — a relatively tiny sum — on approximately 3,000 ads.

Just one day after the company’s carefully sculpted admission,…”

and from :

“Look, this Times investigation took more than six months. It required the work of more than five reporters and a team of researchers. It delved very deeply into former Facebook employees and current Facebook employees [based on interviews with more than 50 people] and their testimony about what went on inside the company and, just as importantly, in Washington, D.C., over the past two years.”

Bruce Schneier November 24, 2018 4:10 PM

@ Faustus:

“Is is possible to talk about information attacks against this blog or will it just degenerate into unproductive name calling?”

I don’t think it’s possible without more policing than I am willing to do.

Bruce Schneier November 24, 2018 4:14 PM

I just deleted three comments — at least one of them I agreed with — because they strayed too far from the post’s topic. I know it’s difficult, since the post is inherently political, but I will continue to try to keep this place on topic and civil.

VinnyG November 25, 2018 4:35 PM

@Winter re: US voter demographics – It does appear that at this time there is a dynamic in demographics that increasingly favors the Democratic Party positions over those of the Republicans (as those positions are presently arrayed, at least.) However, the Democratic Party positions include many more of the “appease the masses with bread and circuses” variety (i.e., funding ever-increasing giveaways to the less wealthy by ever-increasing taxation of the more wealthy.) Unless one believes that the value of currency lies only in the paper and the ink, this trend has inevitable consequences, at which time politicians may likely find that their positions have become largely irrelevant, and the proximity of a secure hidey-hole quite relevant.
@Clive Robinson re: ‘”An abdication of responsibility” or “Naked theft” depending on your viewpoint’ – and that viewpoint is almost certainly contingent upon at which end of the dole/taxation see-saw one finds oneself. It is also becoming apparent (to me at least) that the differences between representative forms of government that the pure “two wolves and a lamb voting on the luncheon entree” variety of democracy is much more dependent upon custom than law. The US seems to be evolving toward such a pure democracy while continuing to observe the legal trappings of a representative State.

Clive Robinson November 26, 2018 2:42 AM

@ VinnyG,

… and that viewpoint is almost certainly contingent upon at which end of the dole/taxation see-saw one finds oneself.

It shouldn’t. In practice everybody pays tax in one way or another either on erned or unerned income or on what we spend.

Thus what taxation gets spent on and why should likewise be everybody’s business.

The problem is there is so much “hidden” that what have been described as “the real wealfare mom’s” ie hard lobbying big business –especially associated to the three families vying to control the GOP, which includes the thoroughly destestable Kochs along with the Mercers, and the Adelsons–, who not only do not pay the tax they should, they actually demand and get far more in subsidies and other back handers.

In short not the people you realy want pulling the strings of government at other taxpayers expense (including yours).

What they hate is “the duty of care” the State has towards it’s citizens although they benifit deeply from it. Thus they actually want to committ war on themselves…

I’ve mentioned this in the past. Contrary to what many think your state of health is highly dependent on those around you. Thus keeping the nation healthy raises everybodies boat to some extent or the other. Likewise it takes a certain minimum popularion size to make any healthcare system not just viable, but be able to do the research that benifits all. Thus cutting back on health care and associated state functions harms everyone. Which is maybe why the US has unlike many other Western Nations a falling rather than rising average life expectancy…

In what would normally be the “economically productive” in their significant income earning years. Which has led researchers and others to start talking about “The dieses of despair”,

Put simply the behaviour of a very few is murdering a great many in the US and this trend is likely to continue as long as the average citizen abdicates their responsability to not just others but themselves. Whilst also alowing a very few to commit “naked theft” on the tax resources that should be used to turn things around.

As the old saying goes “You can lead a horse to water…” thus the question is are they going to take a drink or not?

vas pup November 26, 2018 12:12 PM

@Ross Williams:
“Democracy is a tool for selecting leaders. It is an important underlying mechanism for self-government. With self-government it works as a mechanism that establishes the populace as sovereign and the government and its leaders as their servants.”
In some of Schiller’s drama (as I recall) it was statement “If animals elect King, they will elect Ant, not a Lion”. That statement took some time to object, but at the end of the day @Ross I’d say in order representative government works as you suggested electorate should have particular level of understanding of what is offering/promising to them (sweet dreams) by prospective leader and what could really be implemented. Otherwise, you have selection by criteria not related to capability to deliver those pre-election promises: e.g. nice looking, tall, of favorable demographics – that is all coming of our evolutionary past: tribalism – that is how chimps select their ‘boss’ of the pack. We still bound by those biases even without understanding that.

vas pup November 28, 2018 11:53 AM

@all: real democracy should combine both mechanisms of making vital decisions: by elected officials (representative part) and by electorate directly (referendum, vote of confidence – direct democracy). Direct democracy could be civilized mechanism of resolving the most important issues versus violent option like riots/revolutions/revolts which basically bring a long period of chaos and decline for the most of population.
E.g. in UK by referendum it was decided that Scotland stay as part of UK, and referendum decided Brexit of UK out of EU.
I guess is such vital decisions it should be some qualified % of participation by electorate and required % of vote which make decision valid. That is up to each really democratic country to decide. I’d suggest at least 50% of participation and difference of votes for and against should be no less than 10% out of taking part in referendum – but that is my subjective opinion.
Other example: SCOTUS could make decision by 5 to 4 and turn around life of the whole population of US (more than 300 million people). I guess in such cases POTUS or/and Congress should have a right to bring such case to referendum because vox populi (voice of people)vox dei (voice of God).
Thomas Jefferson provided statement for possible objections to direct democracy: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves: and we think of them not to enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion”.

I just want to remind now is XXI century.
It was good for American colonies, French Revolution, but that is history. For realities of current world violence is counterproductive just based on pure results (you know many recent examples). When changes are about to be brought to life by uncivilized way the only alternative become suppression by authoritarian methods to prevent chaos and minimize human casualties. By the way MLK always insisted on non-violent path to changes. It required patient and persistency, but provide more long-term benefits versus violent outburst having only destructive component.

I hope this comment is not going to be removed and line closed.

gordo November 28, 2018 6:57 PM

Some random thoughts and questions after re-reading the subject paper:

It would seem that as banks are to money laundering, social media are to foreign-political-influence laundering. In the U.S., the FEC and the SEC, among others, should be interested in such developments.

In the U.S., studies of flooding and confidence attacks are well-served by the existence of gerrymandering as well as the lack thereof, i.e., blue, red and purple.

For U.S. federal elections, would “common knowledge” encompass more than the Civics Questions and Answers for the Naturalization Test?

Per Statista, these are presently the Most famous social network sites worldwide as of October 2018, ranked by number of active users (in millions). Longitudinal studies of popular platforms and the extent to which they’re used for flooding and confidence attacks might provide some useful insights, if not actionable intelligence.

I’m not a Facebook user so I may be a little off on this, but can Facebook users opt-out of receiving political advocacy and issue-oriented advertising in their news feeds?

In the context of social media, is the “fee-for-service” model an answer to the “no soliciting” question.

. . .

echo November 28, 2018 10:14 PM

@vas pup, @gordo

I like your comments. What I find especially productive under the current political and media environment is popular discussion moving more towards the substance than dog whistle items or involving high status oxygen thieves in discussion. I feel this is a useful counter to under informed opnion and attention manipulation via crude PR techniques.

As an example if we discuss the science of throwing a ball the science is neutral. The universe is the ultimate arbitor or court of what is and isn’t possible as best we know. If in a ball game such as baseball or cricket one side or another attempted to cheat or harbour suspicions of cheating because the state of the ball was fuzzy and arguable nobody would be able to play a game. But as we know the pyhsics is solid so both sides can have faith in the system and that if the ball deviates in any way from the science we either need new science (not impossible but unlikely) or that the ball was tampered with. By shifting discussion to the science and applying scientific methodologies we mitigate against ego and flawed understanding.

I know this is a bad example but sure people know what I am saying.

vas pup November 29, 2018 10:29 AM

@echo and all usual suspects – you should like information provided in the link:
There are (as I see) set of opportunities to manipulate human behavior in both good and bad way (depending who use this neutral technology). I see utilization for indoctrination/counter -indoctrination and interrogation bridge building(IC/LEAs), but I’ll be silent – I remember the destiny of that poor monk who developed choking device for using by Pope’s inquisition several hundreds year ago, but then some misunderstanding developed between them on other issues, and monk was choked by his own device by Pope’s order. That is my warning for all crazy (in good sense of the word)scientist: when you developed new technology/scientific breakthrough – you can’t most of the time control its usage. I guess that is why Tesla destroyed some of his paper – but that is just my humble opinion.

Clive Robinson November 29, 2018 1:15 PM

@ vas pup,

you should like information provided in the link:

Man that reads like a Vogue advert 😉

So editing away all but the esssentials,

It’s a testube on a thong you wear around your neck in which there is a wick of essential oil connected to a heating element similar to that found in inkjets.

The nerves in the nose are hardwired direct into the brain thus smell is about as close to a direct organic mind altering system as you can get…

Thus potentially you could make an instrument to alter the state of the human mind.

Question how many have watched the 1968 film Barbarella staring Jane Fonda?

gordo December 4, 2018 11:39 PM

Using information security to explain why disinformation makes autocracies stronger and democracies weaker
Boing Boing / CORY DOCTOROW / TUE NOV 27, 2018


blockquote>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).

See also, as provided on Doctorow’s page, a link to Henry Farrell’s blog entry (same as @Bruce’s above) and the comments from his readers:

My take on “reclassification of online services as public utilities,” or what one might call social-media-political-campaign influence reform, is that any form of “mass microtargeting,” i.e., “mass communication,” would have to be stripped, if not designed out of such platforms or systems and treated like spam; no astroturfing allowed.

For lack of a better way to put it, “word of finger” needs to be de-scaled to better match “word of mouth” information flows.

Weather December 5, 2018 11:22 AM

%spot the leading question

A research paper has discovered that the earth oceans don’t rise like a bath tub, Alaska at A had fallen 1mm compared to Florida at B,while Holland at C rises 2mm
It was caused by things like oceancurrents and gravity of ice sheets.
When ice in Greenland melt the sea could possabile rise 10 meters.

Being a hypercritical and splitter.

css December 15, 2018 5:51 PM

This kind of annoys me – I mean I get this is for Lawfare and that’s a natsec beehive of American exceptionalism and all, but really?

This is also the situation that writers like Adrien Chen and Peter Pomerantsev describe 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.

First I’d say “puppets of the regime” should be “puppets of the oligarchy”, and in the US we really do have the same situation. There is such a lack of transparency in elections finance, and such a sad state of affairs in hard news that we really don’t know who exactly our elected officials are standing for.

Both sides of the aisle are full of “puppets of the regime” and that regime is basically anyone with large sacks of money. I think the GOP is somewhat less threatened by the Russian “propaganda” because they see the system of a nicely-ordered set of ruling corporations as something they could get behind. And some of our more forward-looking democrats certainly can see the benefits of dealing with the concerns of a small group of moneyed interests instead of the plebes that cast their votes…

2016 was fascinating – we saw a historically weak candidate lose to a historically awful candidate and rather than examine any actual issues, we’re going to debate whether a Russian-funded HIllary cage paraded down some main street in a small town was the problem of if people are just sick of the status quo and will opt for anything that’s not that.

Academic analysis that just sniffs around the edges of the real problem, combined with a very weak opposition party and a whole apparatus whose only goal is to ensure we have the largest military welfare program in the world means we’re sliding into some awful hybrid not unlike where Russia is at now. Give it like 10 years and we’ll be accepting things that seem batsh*t insane (even compared to the here and now) as basically normal… We’ll keep mocking the developed world for their social programs as we slide further into hellworld, with a large portion of our population cheering it all on.

baud December 17, 2018 6:46 AM

Democracies are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge

I don’t information attacks are needed for that, just the observation from people that the “common knowledge” parroted by the (state-funded) media does not reflect the reality; I think the current Yellow Vest movement is symptomatic of such issue, without any information attacks.

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