Facing what could be the most tumultuous election in a century, the nation’s institutions and political groups have come under increasing cyberattacks that are threatening to disrupt the outcome. There has been a proliferation of new “bots” on Twitter that are primarily stumping for the nationalist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats and attacking the ruling Social Democrats.
The unfortunate lesson many authoritarian regimes learned in 2016 is that subversive methods are cheap (especially compared to military operations), hard to attribute (especially in real time), and remarkably effective (especially if they can build on existing social cleavages in diverse, democratic societies), notes Michael Carpenter, senior director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.
Since authoritarian regimes rule over heavily policed societies without free media, they possess an asymmetric advantage over their democratic adversaries, whose open press, pluralistic politics, and networked societies pose vulnerabilities. Three key things need to be done to counter this assault on democratic institutions, he writes for The Hill:
- First, the United States needs to expose foreign interference. Civil society initiatives like the recently announced Transatlantic Commission for Election Integrity or the Alliance for Securing Democracies can help by keeping the public informed in real time. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center can also help do this overseas.
- Second, the United States urgently needs to address its own vulnerabilities. This includes strengthening cybersecurity, blocking the pathways through which corrupt foreign money enters the country (including nontransparent shell companies, law firms, and real estate transactions), and pushing social media companies to devote more resources to identifying foreign disinformation. While there is no one “fix” to address this wide range of threats, Congressman Hoyer’s “Secure America from Russian Interference Act of 2018” offers important tools to diminish our vulnerabilities.
- Finally, costs need to be imposed on foreign states when they are caught trying to subvert our elections, as Russia did in 2016. The “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018,” cosponsored by Senators Menendez, Graham, Gardner, Cardin, McCain, and Shaheen, would mandate impactful new sanctions against countries that attack our democratic institutions.
A basic assumption of democracy is that people evaluate information and come to reasoned judgments, notes psychologist Ira Hyman, co-author of Misinformation and worldviews in the post-truth information age. But this system depends on an agreement about the state of the world. People should be able to agree about what is true.
As Daniel Moynihan once famously quipped, “Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not his own facts.”
The threat to democracy posed by fake news and growing intolerance is well told in two timely books – The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, and The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani – writes Edward Luce, the author of ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism’:
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or to push an agenda,” Kakutani writes, quoting a tweet from Garry Kasparov. “It is to exhaust your critical thinking.”…[but] her book suffers from a weakness common to all alarums about today’s democracy crisis: it is longer on lament than solutions. “Without truth, democracy is hobbled,” she writes. “The founders recognized this, and those seeking democracy’s survival must recognize it today.”
Lukianoff and Haidt, both of whom are liberal academics do a great job of showing how “safetyism” is cramping young minds, Luce adds:
One impeccably liberal scholar was subjected to ostracism when she wrote an article questioning our double standards on identity. Changing gender is applauded, she pointed out, whereas altering your race is not. The first is treated as mutable; the second as fixed. Fellow scholars demanded that she retract the article. One accused her of the untranslatable crime of “discursive trans-misogynistic violence”. Note the instinct for censorship rather than debate. Note also the use of the word violence, which is being stretched to Orwellian lengths. It is part of the same “concept creep” that treats naturally resilient young minds as fragile things that need to be sheltered.