How to protect democracy from digital authoritarians’ toolbox


The alliances, cooperation, and coordination that comprise the liberal world order depend on sufficient public political support and trust within and across democracies, notes Michael Colaresi, William S. Dietrich II Professor of Political Science Research at the University of Pittsburgh, and author of Democracy Declassified: The Secrecy Dilemma in National Security.

Unlike traditional gate-keeper modes of mass information transmission that have been active in liberal states for the last century, social networks directly connect democratic citizens to content propagated from potentially adversarial users and bots around the world, he will tell the Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cybersecurity (IDeaS) seminar today;

This new information environment has created the opportunity for countries such as Russia to pursue adversarial digital disinformation campaigns, exploiting the fact that democracies run on citizens’ beliefs and perceptions. Despite the detection of these campaigns across developed democracies, there is currently limited systematic understanding of their motivations and effectiveness across individual, group, and societal scales. …..Simulations clarify the vulnerability of democratic publics to adversarial disruption campaigns, particularly when adversaries have access to high resolution surveillance of citizens prior beliefs and prejudices.

Without fundamental changes and investments to improve the information-architecture in democracies, there is cause for pessimism about the stability of democratic cooperation in the digital age, Colaresi adds. One kernel of hope resides in the relative resilience of expert-knowledge on socially-edited, non-profit platforms such as Wikipedia, in comparison to the ad-based, solo-authored networks.

Key suggestions for the next phase include:

  • Work on cross-sector relationships. Stop seeing each other as the problem and start building a long-term, progressive relationship to solve the real problems together.
  • Understand differences among stakeholder groups. Member states, industry, civil society, and academia are not monolithic groups. Aim to find and build on overlapping interests where small, concrete steps can be made.
  • Focus on finding common ground. Develop a clear vision of a future relationship among stakeholders so that all parties can plan long term to achieve this.
  • Develop a long-term collaborative focus on impact evaluation. There are no definitive studies on the effects of either influence operations or measures to counter them, and this must be rectified as a matter of urgency.
  • Address the social media black market. There are broader problems in how the internet is used by malign actors that can only be solved by partnerships among stakeholders.

The EU Code of Practice on Disinformation (COP) produced mixed results, according to a new analysis. Self-regulation was a logical and necessary first step, but one year on, few of the stakeholders seem fully satisfied with the process or outcome. Strong trust has not been built between industry, governments, academia, and civil society, notes the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations (PCIO), an initiative of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Most importantly, there is more to be done to better protect the public from the potential harms caused by disinformation. In addition, it identifies three key recommendations:

  • Develop a shared terminology. The lack of common terminologies for the challenge of influence operations—among the EU and its member states and each tech platform—prevents a shared understanding of the problem, an articulation of shared goals, and instructive self-reporting on COP measures. Without agreement over a definitive EU terminological apparatus for all stakeholders to report against, opaqueness and obfuscation will continue to hamper meaningful progress.
  • Develop campaign-wide analytics for impact evaluation. The major platforms already collaborate on intelligence sharing (including, but not limited to, attribution); in contrast to other business areas, their respective security teams have an open, trusted channel for sharing intelligence on disinformation leads and threat actor tactics, techniques, and procedures. Collaboration at the operational response level arguably indicates the feasibility of collaborating on a shared repository of analytics and campaign-wide data for policymakers and the research community…..
  • Develop an iterative consultancy process that leads to actionable evidence. The long-term vision should center on collaboration to develop methodologically sound research on the impact of IO and their countermeasures. PCIO supports efforts to create a sense of common purpose among diverse stakeholders, and it will launch a series of initiatives during 2020 designed to shape consensus around complex issues pertinent to the next phase of the COP.

Lawyer Brittan Heller outlines different ways to recognize blatant, nefarious disinformation online, including The Digital Authoritarians’ Toolbox: How to Protect Digital Democracy (left).

The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) has announced an open competition for awards up to $800K for projects that support investigative journalism, especially on corruption and mis- and dis-information.

When political leadership casts doubt on the integrity of democratic institutions, particularly without any evidence, it is extremely damaging to the function of those institutions, Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) Director Laura Rosenberger told The Washington Post.

For a long time, Russian official media channels have been promoting internal political divisions, ASD’s Head of Research and Policy Jessica Brandt told Reuters. The United States needs to take politics out of its efforts to unmask and respond to interference operations, she added in a “Background Briefing.” 

On Monday, 9th March, court hearings will begin in The Netherlands in an attempt to determine criminal responsibility for the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, the Henry Jackson Society adds. MH17 was destroyed over in eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014, killing all 298 people on board. On the basis of the investigation conducted by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), Dutch prosecutors are prosecuting four suspects – three Russians, and one Ukrainian – for bringing down the airplane. International arrest warrants have been issued for all four.

To mark the start of the Dutch court hearings into the MH17 tragedy, the Henry Jackson Society and the Embassy of Ukraine invite you to a panel discussion with Michael Bociurkiw, a Canadian expert on mis- and dis-information; Eliot Higgins, Founder of Bellingcat [a partner of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) that has been described as “a thorn in Putin’s side“]; and Roland Oliphant, Senior Foreign Correspondent, The Telegraph. RSVP

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