How to stop the manipulation of democracy online



Russian efforts to influence the American election are part of a larger, profound challenge to democracy worldwide, according to Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House. Online manipulation tactics played an important role in at least 17 other elections over the past year. From the Philippines and Ecuador to Turkey and Kenya, governing parties used paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites and propaganda outlets to inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves, he writes for the New York Times:

There is no panacea; constant vigilance and education are required to attack this problem. Young people and other web users must be taught to take seriously the demands of cybersecurity. High schools should be including media literacy as part of history and social science curriculums. Most of all, students and others must be put on alert that there really is fake news — false information deliberately planted by malevolent actors — and that they need to be on guard against propaganda masquerading as truth.

Russia is working toward the ultimate goal of a unified “information space,” says a new report from the RAND Corporation. Russian behavior will continue to be driven by the views of its most senior leaders, views influenced by contextual activities in the economic, diplomatic, informational, and military domains, say analysts Scott Boston and Dara Massicot, authors of The Russian Way of Warfare: A Primer.

The country’s leaders “may misread cues, see or exaggerate threats to Russia, react to perceived provocations, and potentially preempt when they judge conflict to be inevitable,” they add. “So while Russia’s overall strategic orientation is roughly akin to a defensive crouch, defensive reactions could well take a very offensive character at the direction of Russian leadership.”

During this year’s German elections, Kremlin-linked media targeted the far right, far left, and Russian-German communities to exacerbate existing ‘wedge issues’, according to “Make Germany Great Again: Kremlin, Alt-Right and International Influences in the 2017 German Elections”, a report from the ISD (Institute for Strategic Dialogue) and the Arena Project at the LSE’s Institute of Global Affairs.

A network of pro-Russian and international far-right groups actively spread messages and memes designed to undermine mainstream parties and promote the far-right AfD, says the report, authored by journalist and prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy], Peter Pomerantsev, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics, Melanie Smith, a Research Manager at ISD, and Chloe Colliver, a Digital Policy and Research Coordinator at ISD.

“Activists unearthed by this research have also engaged in election interference from France, Ukraine, Germany and the US. In a wider political context, we are seeing the rapid expansion of transnational networks of disinformation and toxic speech, which can operationalize activity around events such as elections,” the report adds:

These networks combine state and non-state actors, and form rapidly shifting alliances around a variety of interests and aims. This research demonstrates that it is becoming increasingly difficult to speak of ‘outside’ groups, let alone merely states, influencing some sort of coherent ‘domestic’ information space. Instead, we are seeing the emergence of a malign version of the originally optimistic idea of an informational ‘global village’. Responses must bear this international dimension in mind. They should aim to be coordinated internationally, while also addressing domestic fault lines. The following recommendations are addressed to sectors who we believe have a role to play in limiting the accessibility of disinformation, along with those who can help to build resilience against disinformation among vulnerable constituencies.

Euromaidan Press

Russian news outlets “RT” (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik were recently forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Blowback over this move has raised questions about whether the law does enough to track foreign influence in the modern media age – or whether it’s the wrong tool to use in the battle against Russian disinformation, according to a Cipher Brief analysis:

However, the criteria that determine what entities must register under the law are not well defined. There is no defined threshold of evidence or activity that can help determine when a media company has crossed a line from educating and reporting to illegally trying to influence U.S. officials and U.S. policy. FARA has also not been adapted to account for the new social media realities that allow foreign agents to operate in disguise through bots and trolls, and still be considered credible sources of information. Read the full brief.

Public opinion data is crucial to understanding how and why disinformation is gaining ground. A recent series of public opinion surveys by the International Republican Institute (IRI) of the Visegrad Four (V4) countries and Germany revealed fascinating insights into areas of vulnerability and resilience to Russian disinformation, Visegrad Insight reports. The polls were commissioned by IRI’s Beacon Project, an initiative that equips European stakeholders with the tools to counter Russian meddling and protect European democracy from the corrosive effects of disinformation.

“The USSR or Russia never started a war.” These and other fakes were broadcast on pro-Kremlin media (see above) just before the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence, EU vs. Disinfo adds.

Europe is facing a low intensity hybrid conflict, with Russia targeting the three domains of information, cyber and intelligence, notes Marek Magierowski, Undersecretary of State at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Poland highly appreciates initiatives undertaken by the EU East StratCom Task Force, but in its present formula, it is not able to effectively counter disinformation, fake news, and other propaganda threats, he writes for Visegrad Insight. “The optimal solution would be to establish similar units in all countries (not only for myth-busting but also for effective counteractions and positive communication),” he suggests.

Last year, a 52-year-old Czech IT specialist called Radek Koten shared an inflammatory post from a pro-Russian website which attacked mandatory vaccinations, notes Michael Colborne. “Cancerous enzymes” had been found in vaccine compounds, according to the article he shared (see below), and the doctors who made the discovery had all been “murdered.” Over the past year, he has also decorated his Facebook wall with claims that the 9/11 attacks were a CIA plot and that the United States wants to liquidate the Slavic race, he writes for the World Policy Journal:

If Koten (pictured) was just another Czech citizen with a penchant for conspiracy theories from pro-Kremlin sites, his posts would not have attracted much notice. But he has vaulted to national prominence in the last few months, after first being elected as an MP for the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) and then going one better by becoming head of the Czech parliament’s powerful security committee.

A recent Eurozine panel discussion (see below) on ‘Infowars: Disinformation and democracy in the digital eco-system’, featured Johanna Rohozinska, a Senior Program Officer at the National Endowment for Democracy.


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