Russia's Attacks on Our Democratic Systems Call for Diverse Countermeasures

What do attacks on the integrity of our voting systems, the census and the judiciary all have in common? They’re all intended to reduce our faith in systems necessary for our democracy to function, and they’re also targets of Russian propaganda efforts.

To understand how these efforts can effectively undermine a democracy, it helps to think of a government as an information system. In this conceptualization, there are two types of knowledge that governments use to function. The first is what we call common political knowledge, which consists of the political information we all agree on. This includes things such as how the government works, how leaders are elected, and the laws that the courts uphold. This is contrasted with contested political knowledge, which are the things we disagree on: what the correct level of taxation should be, in what ways government should get involved in social issues, and so on.

Both are essential in a democracy, because we draw upon our disagreements to solve problems. Different political groups work to advance their own agendas, and the inevitable compromises between those groups advance laws and policies. Uncertainty over who will be in power in the long term incents everyone to keep the whole system running. But for any of this to work, we need the shared knowledge of the rules by which society operates. We all have to agree on the rules for elections, the authority of regulatory agencies, and even what the dominant political parties are and what they stand for. When what previously has been common political knowledge becomes contested political knowledge, democracy itself is in jeopardy.

We can see how this works in our three examples. Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election are well documented, in the Mueller report and elsewhere. Russian troll farms such as the Internet Research Agency used social networking platforms to push divisive political agendas to supporters of both political parties. They hacked and released documents belonging to the Democratic Committee. They pushed those sides to more extreme positions. They organized fake protests, and stoked fear by paying for self-defense classes for Black Lives Matter activists. They hacked election systems in Florida and elsewhere, although there is no evidence that any votes were changed.

In February, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted Concord Management and Consulting for its part in funding the Internet Research Agency. As part of the process, the prosecutor turned over evidence documents to the company’s lawyers. These documents were selectively manipulated and then leaked to reporters, making it seem that the prosecutor’s evidence was much flimsier than it actually was.

Attacks against the 2020 census are just getting started. Officials are worried about attacks against the census itself—especially since many people will be filling it out online. But we also should worry about propaganda efforts either to make some groups less likely to fill out the census, or to make all of us more mistrustful of the results.

These tactics are not unique to Russia. China ran the same sort of influence operations in Taiwan in advance of its 2018 elections. And a 2012 document from the British GCHQ, released as part of the Snowden archive, outlines all sorts of code-named tools to manipulate perceptions of public opinion. For example, CLEAN SWEEP fakes Facebook posts, UNDERPASS changes the outcome of online polls, BADGER supports the “mass delivery of email messages to support an Information Operations campaign,” and WARPATH does the same for text messages. Of course, our own capabilities have become more sophisticated in the intervening seven years, and it’s reasonable to assume that we’re doing everything Russia is doing and more.

The balance between common and contested political knowledge is different in an autocracy. There, the former is monopolized by the ruling party. There, the latter is dangerous to the stability of the regime, because it points to a variety of alternative political ideals, processes and leaders. More generally: it is why a free and open Internet can be a destabilizing force in totalitarian countries and a stabilizing force in democracies, and why the same information operations can be stabilizing when run domestically in countries such as Russia, Hungary and the Philippines and destabilizing in the United States and the European Union.

There’s no one solution here, and our countermeasures will have to be as diverse as the attacks themselves. Shutting down troll and bot social media accounts, attributing the organizations behind political ad campaigns, calling out fake news, and teaching better digital literacy are all parts of the solution. So are the Department of Justice’s indictment of individual Russians involved in these operations, and U.S. Cyber Command’s “persistent engagement” efforts to harass and disrupt these operations as they did in advance of the 2018 midterm elections. These are political attacks from a foreign power, and we need to exact a political penalty in response.

That won’t be enough. If the goals of the attacks are to turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge, then we also need to bolster public confidence in the systems and institutions we all share and trust. We not only need to ensure that elections are fair, but also that they are perceived to be fair. We need to do the same thing with information collection systems such as the census. We need to become reflexively suspicious of information that makes us angry at our fellow citizens. We can never heal the social divisions that are inherent in our society—and we don’t want to—but we can make them harder to exploit.

Moreover, we need to make these sorts of efforts politically unacceptable in our own country, even if at the moment they benefit our favorite political cause or party. We won’t be able to prevent foreign efforts to destabilize our democracy if domestic actors do the same things as part of their normal political process.

Categories: Elections

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.