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How Democracies Can Win an Information Contest Without Undercutting Their Values – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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Dueling French and Russian trolls sparred with one another online as they vied for influence in multiple African countries, Facebook revealed late last year. It was the first time the platform called out individuals affiliated with a Western liberal democratic government for coordinated inauthentic behavior on its platform. The French operation, which had been underway since 2018, used fake accounts to pose as locals in target countries, commenting on content related to current events and pushing back on criticisms of French foreign policy posted by the Russian operation. “We have these two efforts from different sides of these issues using the same tactics and techniques,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said of the episode, “and they end up looking sort of the same.” That is a problem.
Democracies should not emulate the disinformation tactics of authoritarian regimes like Russia and China. Specifically, democracies should not seek to covertly influence public debate either by deliberately spreading information that is false or misleading or by engaging in deceptive practices, such as the use of fictitious online personas. While it can be tempting to fight fire with fire and combat authoritarian information manipulation with equivalent tactics, doing so will only deepen public distrust of political discourse—eroding the very basis of democracy and bolstering arguments used to defend autocratic rule. Responding to information manipulation in kind allows autocrats to dictate the terms of the competition—and it all but ensures that the contest will play out on terrain where democracies are at a disadvantage. These long-term costs outweigh any transitory foreign policy benefits that democracies may seek to gain. Instead, democracies should leverage their comparative advantages—which for advanced democracies often include strong rule of law, a healthy respect for human rights, considerable soft power, advanced cyber capabilities, and a vibrant network of partners and allies—and respond on their own terms.
As the French example shows, democracies in the transatlantic community are scrambling to find ways to combat information manipulation by authoritarian rivals. Russia and China in particular have made coordinated use of social and traditional media to manipulate and influence public debate, often by engaging in deceptive practices like misrepresenting the provenance of content or its intent. In different ways, both countries use such tactics as part of their broad-based geostrategic competition with U.S.-aligned democracies. Beijing seeks to shore up power at home and influence public discourse abroad on issues it cares about. Moscow has similar goals, and, worse, also tries to weaken democratic systems from within.
These tactics leverage asymmetric advantages that give authoritarian regimes an upper hand. While open information spaces may confer important strategic advantages on free societies over the long run, they also create vulnerabilities in the short term: outside actors can, at low cost and with plausible deniability, inject themselves into and try to influence domestic discourse—and efforts to foreclose that activity bump up against rights to expression. In contrast, autocratic states often tightly control their domestic information environments, which in the near term affords them a degree of immunity. Moreover, countries like Russia and China can freely exploit Western-based social media platforms without caring about the commercial damage to these companies. They can also use deception with relative impunity because their political systems impose virtually no normative restraints on government lying.
Democracies are different. Unlike authoritarian systems, democratic ones depend on the idea that the truth is knowable, that citizens can discern it, and that they can use it in order to make decisions of self-government. When democratic governments pollute the information space with manipulated content, they risk eroding these ideas and the authority of their own institutions. When citizens of democracies learn about their governments’ covert subterfuge abroad, they may lose trust in official pronouncements at home. The deliberate manipulation of democratic discourse is also likely to reduce the global prestige of democracy, making it harder for democratic governments to build and exercise soft power abroad. And by reinforcing the perception that information manipulation is pervasive, such activity undermines the notion of objective truth, which will ultimately do more harm to democratic societies than to their competitors.
Granted, democratic governments and their leaders have also sometimes deceived their own citizens and foreign audiences. To pick just a few well-known U.S. examples, the American government used a false account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident to escalate the Vietnam War, and it conducted numerous nontransparent information campaigns in third countries throughout the Cold War. But while democratic governments have sometimes used falsehoods, these are (or should be) much rarer and more limited than those of authoritarian counterparts due to normative and institutional restraints. In the United States, for example, a series of political reckonings and transparency reforms in the 1970s—in wake of the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, and the Church Committee investigation, among other catalysts—have helped to curtail official deception about government activities and policies. Although these restraints remain incomplete and fragile—as vividly illustrated by former U.S. president Donald Trump’s falsehood-laden presidency—they still matter a great deal. As social media continue to shape global discourse and provide new opportunities for deception, now is the time for democracies to reaffirm their basic commitment to truth.
The French operation was particularly egregious because of the consequences it imposed on unwitting citizens of multiple countries. It put African civilians in the middle of two rival campaigns that were duplicitous in nature and crowded out the authentic public discourse on which democracy depends. If one of Russia’s aims was to frustrate democratic deliberation, the French operation played into their hands. The French actors may have thought they were protecting their country’s interests, but they lost sight of the big picture: in the competition with autocrats, democratic values are themselves interests.
Rather than a reactive, tit-for-tat approach to autocratic attacks on the health and strength of democratic systems, democratic governments should instead seize on their own asymmetric advantages—some of them in the information domain, others in the political, economic, and technological domains. And they must do so with an eye on consolidating long-term gains rather than short-term wins.
To start with, democracies can seize the initiative by harnessing truthful information to defend their interests and the integrity of the global information environment. To do this, democratic governments should take the so-called persistent engagement approach that the United States has applied to cyberspace and carry it into the information domain. This would involve concerted campaigns that are grounded in truthful messaging in order to expose the failures and false promises of harmful autocratic policies. Such an approach would be in keeping with a strategy of pushing back on Moscow’s and Beijing’s advances by exploiting their weaknesses, recognizing that competition is ultimately about the pursuit and use of advantages.
With that in mind, the French government could have publicly exposed Russia’s information campaigns, rather than imitating them or engaging with them. It could also have explored substantive cooperation with affected African governments to help build resilience against a shared threat. This might include, for example, building the capacity of government and civil society organizations to help facilitate healthy democratic discourse. This approach would have been in closer keeping with the recommendation of France’s own foreign affairs ministry, which has cautioned that democratic decisionmakers ought not “yield to the temptation of counter-propaganda.”
Policymakers in many democracies may question whether this marketplace of ideas model still works. After all, research shows that debunking falsehoods is at best partially effectual and can in some cases even help to entrench false beliefs. Importantly, the focus of democratic efforts should not be on refuting false information, but on affirmatively highlighting the strengths of democratic governance models and exposing the corruption and repression of autocratic adversaries. One audience for this messaging would be individuals who live within repressive societies. Another audience would be individuals who live in places where democracy is backsliding or not fully consolidated, where truthful information can help build resilience against authoritarian advances.
To that end, democracies should also uphold freedom of information worldwide—not just because it is consistent with democratic principles, but because it puts Russia and China in a defensive position, given their fragility to open information. This strategy should include encouraging investments in local and independent media at home and supporting objective media abroad, particularly in closed spaces. Robust civil societies and news ecosystems speak truth to power and keep citizens informed.
Ultimately, defending democratic interests in the information domain will require thinking beyond it. Democratic governments should use the diplomatic and economic tools at their disposal to impose costs that might deter authoritarian regimes from conducting manipulative information operations, recognizing that deterrence alone will not be sufficient. When it comes to Russia, this could include leveraging the strength of Western financial institutions, on which the Kremlin’s network of kleptocrats are largely reliant, to target the regime’s financial assets. Such an approach might also entail using cyber capabilities where appropriate, and within existing authorities, to undercut the ability of authoritarian regimes to conduct information operations—as U.S. Cyber Command reportedly did ahead of the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, when it temporarily took Russia’s Internet Research Agency offline, and again last year, when it deployed teams abroad to learn how adversaries might target the 2020 election. The United States in particular could build on this approach by pursuing a broad effort within the Treasury Department to prioritize tracking down graft hidden in Western financial markets, including by publishing a National Corruption Risk Assessment, focusing on kleptocracies and their oligarchs.
For deterrence to work, the United States and its allies would need to somehow convince Russia and China that these cyber operations, sanctions, and other actions would stop if Moscow and Beijing ceased their information manipulation. Likewise, efforts to improve global financial transparency could face pushback from vested interests around the world. Success is far from guaranteed. But democracies need to take bold, responsible action in the face of competition and disinformation from authoritarian rivals.
Democratic governments should do all of this in coordination with one another, leveraging what might well be their most important strategic advantage: a strong network of partners and alliances. Democratic governments should stand shoulder to shoulder, sharing information about threats and collaborating on responses that are rooted in their values, because those values are strengths. The information competition is not just a contest between nations, but a struggle over systems and principles. African democracies have a stake in the fight. They should be partners in this effort, not collateral damage.
The challenge that autocratic information manipulation campaigns pose for democracies is urgent. But adopting the techniques of choice for authoritarians leads free societies down the wrong path. Rather than cede the moral high ground—a critical asset in the various geopolitical struggles between Western democracies and their autocratic adversaries—democracies should pursue a strategy that is rooted in democratic values and leverages democratic strengths in order to reframe the contest on their own terms. That is how they will prevail.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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