Vassilis Ntousas from the Foundation for European Progressive Studies explores an aspect of politics that concerns keeping our democracy true when it comes to foreign information interference and forward-looking countermeasures
The last editorial of the print edition of the Independent newspaper contained a powerful quote, increasingly emblematic of our times “the truth is hard, expensive and sometimes boring, whereas lies are easy, cheap and thrilling.” This has always been true to an extent, but the level of weaponisation of truth in today’s fiercely contested information environment ails our democracy and our democracies perhaps in an unprecedented fashion.
Malign (state and non-state) actors have taken advantage of the rise of new media and digital technologies, exploiting loopholes that exist in the intersection behind this set of technological advancements and our traditional model of political and social organisation. These actors have realised over the past decade and a half that this new digital toolkit is a relatively easy, far less costly and much more powerful instrument, perfectly capable of exploiting our human weaknesses and of polarising and dividing societies.
The goal is clear. Usually disguised as legitimate and trustworthy content, disinformation has often exploited the viral power of social media and the echo chambers that digital liked-minded communities often operate within, at times leading to much higher and broader distribution rates than actual news. It has thrived on the polarisation many of our societies are facing and it has served to entrench further these echo chambers and amplify misinformation. In such an environment, as Orwell predicted, when we can’t decipher what is real and what is not democracy, its ethos, norms, institutions and foundations, are severely challenged. The combined result of this is the subversion of the normalcy of political life, the sowing and encouragement of discord and the amplification of fissures, divisions, suspicions and distrust within our societies. It is these fissures that have increased and sustained the susceptibility of our societies to outside interference.
A measured, imaginative response
How is democracy and for that matter, our democracies to respond against these challenges?
To react appropriately, we need to make sure that we are neither underestimating the threat nor overestimating it. Take Russian actions in this domain for example. For sure, the Kremlin’s efforts have been characteristic of an authoritarian regime’s intent to act in this way to discredit liberal democracy and its component elements. Nonetheless, Russian influence operations might be real, but they are neither as detrimental nor as effective as they first appear. Lumping everything under the heading of ‘Russian-related efforts to subvert our democracies’ may lead to the spread of the belief that Russian influence operations are always ubiquitous and wildly successful. On the contrary, they often are inept and poorly organised. This is not to downplay what is at stake here and the threat level involved. It is simply to underline the importance of having a realistic sense of threat perception.
In order to fully safeguard our democracies, we also need to ensure that we exhaust all means available at our disposal to tackle the underlying problems making our societies susceptible to such efforts. It is easy and at times lazy to blame foreign actors for everything negative happening domestically, but have we worked enough to patch up or heal our internal divisions, have we exerted the maximum of our oversight role and have we closed off all possible or imaginable loopholes?
Finally, we also need to remember that this is as much an exercise about analysing what went wrong (or right) in 2016, 2017, or 2018, as much as it is about setting the rules about it not happening, or happening differently in 2019, 2020 and so on. Simply catching up cannot be the basis for sustainable, forward-looking strategies to address the challenges posed; models and frameworks that respond to the needs of tomorrow as much as to the needs of today must be established. There are critical areas where this logic must be urgently applied: we need to now start designing new electoral laws that are in sync with the digital age, we have to take a leap forward in how we improve digital literacy, and we must address the public policy gap that exists by commissioning more comprehensive, systematic, and robust research to explore the correlation between interference efforts and their impact on suspicions, emotions and divisions.
In this endeavour, Europe must inescapably raise its level of ambition. The GDPR legislation has shown the potential of the European Union (EU) being a leader in digital matters and enforcing a stricter regulatory framework in how the big tech companies operate, but with a large majority of internet users across the continent being concerned about disinformation in pre-election periods, this is clearly not enough. Similarly, recent efforts to boost the funding of the East StratCom Task Force, created in 2015 to address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns, are a good step but we need to be much more audacious in our approach. Finally, building cyber resilience is neither a spectator sport nor a solitary one. In this regard, resuscitating the transatlantic axis is key; the EU and the U.S. should be the international standards and norms setters in this regard. Combining the regulatory weight of the U.S. Government with European leadership in issues like privacy should create the necessary gravitas for meaningful, positive change globally as well as powerful and costly countermeasures.
Ben Franklin, a polymath and one of the founding fathers of the U.S. once referred to democracy as: “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” In a world awash with disinformation, one might be tempted to slightly update this great quote by adding that democracy is two wolves with a keyboard and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. The stakes could not be higher – thwarting digital authoritarianism should, therefore, be an absolute priority, not least for the next European Commission.
As thrilling as it might be to believe otherwise, succeeding in this endeavour will be important not only for the meaningful political battles that are being fought right now, but perhaps more so, for the kind of politics and the kind of democracies we will be functioning within in the years and decades to come.
This piece contains excerpts and ideas from a larger research piece to be published by the end of the year by FEPS.
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