Beyond Elections’ Digital Propaganda: Need for Improvement of Public Debates
In AICGS’ new report “Defending Democracy in the Cybersphere,” Nad’a Kovalcikova calls for strengthening public debate in the face of ongoing digital propaganda.
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have been increasingly facing non-military threats, including digital disinformation campaigns, which have a world-wide effect. In the context of national and international security, we can consider disinformation and hostile digital propaganda as acute, asymmetrical, chaotic, and multi-polar threats. The cyber world is the new frontier, the new battle space for serious competition between state actors as well as non-state actors. The techniques that can be performed in the digital information space—collecting big data, espionage, influencing voting behavior, extorting information, destroying trust, echo chambering, and propagating false information and other actions—undermine a democracy. Such activities offer key advantages to the perpetrator. They are hard to attribute, relatively inexpensive, and potentially crippling to the intended target and beyond. There are numerous examples of state actors achieving geopolitical objectives by using these techniques. These include: cyber operations during the Russian Federation’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014; pro-Kremlin disinformation and cyberattacks that crippled the Central Election Commission during the 2014 presidential election in Ukraine; multi-pronged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections that shook political debates to their core; the 2018 Skripal affairin Great Britain, which revealed the use of a scandalous combination of asymmetric tools; and other incidents undermining democratic values and stability. In order to engage publics more and more systematically and to help them be better equipped against disinformation, public discourse must be improved. This article is focused on disinformation in cyber space and ideas on how to counter it. It argues that even though more attention is given to discussing foreign interference and digital disinformation before elections, it is critical to continue raising awareness, fostering a healthy public discourse, and encouraging further development of deterrence and defense measures beyond elections. Subsequently, if done in a coordinated manner between state and non-state actors, this will lead to a stronger societal resilience and enhance democratic principles within and beyond national borders.
Elections and Beyond
Prior to the November 2018 U.S. midterm elections, there were again concerns over potential foreign meddling through hacking attempts of election infrastructure, including allegations of attempted voter purging in voter registration databases. However, a comprehensive overview of observed irregularities is difficult to deliver as post-election audits, which are the purview of the states, cannot be legislated by the U.S. federal government. Also, if evidence exists, it may be revealed only later in time. In the U.S. Intelligence Community report issued following the midterm elections, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats stated that there was no intelligence reporting indicating that the Russian government or others compromised election infrastructure. Nevertheless, he also stated that “Russia, and other foreign countries, including China and Iran, conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns targeted at the United States.”