In partnership with the Stanford Internet Observatory, Lawfare is publishing a series assessing the threat of foreign influence operations targeting the United States. Contributors debate whether the threat of such operations is overblown, voicing a range of views on the issue. For more information on the series, click here.
Geopolitics over the next several decades will be defined by competition between democracies and autocracies. This contest is already playing out across the military, economic and diplomatic domains—and in the information arena as well. As former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon observed, “[T]his is [a] world where the threats are to and through information[,] ... both our opportunities and our challenges.”
When it comes to preparing for this challenge, the United States risks missing the forest for the trees. Most discussion of nation-state influence operations has been driven through the narrow lens of social media campaigns and electoral interference of the kind associated with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While Americans may never know the full extent or impact of those operations, it is clear that they were neither confined to the digital realm nor aimed only at influencing voter opinions on issues or candidates. As the intelligence community assessed, one of Russia’s goals was “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” That includes undermining the idea of truth itself—a development that would undercut the function of deliberative democracy, which depends on the existence of a shared reality among citizens. Assessments of the threat of foreign influence that focus solely on tactical operations and their impact on public opinion risk overlooking this danger.
This more insidious assault on democracy is fundamentally about the exercise of nation-state power through information. Information technologies and architecture—from 5G telecommunications systems to data-driven surveillance both on and off social media—increasingly underpin every aspect of our lives. The architects of these information platforms influence how they are used, who can access the data flowing through them and how, and—for algorithmic platforms—what content is served up to which individuals. As the ability to construct more and more detailed behavioral profiles on each citizen advances, so too do the vectors for influence. This is a contest not just to wield digital tools but also to shape information realities.
As such, authoritarians’ use of influence operations must be understood as part of a larger strategy to reshape the information space into one that is less democratic and more friendly to despots. As we have written elsewhere, “Authoritarian regimes like Russia and China see information and cyber warfare as integrated domains of asymmetric conflict distinct from kinetic operations. They weaponize information to fight back against democracies’ promotion of free information as a universal right.” At the heart of this contest is the values-based distinction between democratic and autocratic governance: open and free, defined by diversity of opinion and debate; or closed and controlled, supported by censorship and surveillance.
Democracies have failed to take action in this domain, and their sluggishness in understanding its importance has geopolitical consequences. Where the voices of democracies are weakened or absent, autocratic influence fills the void. Latin America, for example, has become a strategic target for Russia. In Africa, Russia and China court power through diplomatic, military, infrastructural, financial and information means. And as Freedom House has detailed, Beijing inserts itself in countries’ information infrastructure through content-delivery platforms and partnerships between Chinese state media and local outlets from Bangladesh to Nigeria. What’s more, Freedom House’s research shows that the rise of social media tools for mass surveillance in repressive regimes as well as in democracies has contributed to the decline of global internet freedom for the ninth consecutive year.
This is not to discount domestic information threats. In fact, the two are deeply connected. Disinformation spouted from domestic political actors, siloed information rabbit holes driven by home-grown tech algorithms, and high levels of distrust in the media ecosystem all make the United States more vulnerable to manipulative tactics. Authoritarian messaging that seeks to paint democratic systems as feckless draws on democracies’ own failings. For example, Russian coverage of the disastrous September debate between President Trump and Vice President Joe Biden mocked the United States as a global laughing stock, chiding the debate as “democracy on display”—an argument made possible by Trump’s abrasive and chaotic performance. Beyond the digital realm, a fracturing traditional media sector and the collapse of local and independent print create information vacuums. Where media outlets in democracies are strapped financially, foreign capital is an attractive supplement, but it comes along with consequences that shape perceptions and can aid propaganda efforts. A partnership between Italian news agency ANSA and China’s state-media outlet Xinhua, for example, is shaping coverage about China in Italy. Meanwhile, even nontraditional information intermediaries in democracies—airlines, sports organizations and other private entities—are vulnerable to coercion by the Chinese Communist Party, which uses access to its consumer market to compel favorable coverage.
But while information pervades every domain of modern geopolitical conflict, malign influence extends beyond information. The covert or nontransparent financing of political parties helps promote candidates sympathetic to authoritarian regimes; state-sponsored cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, intellectual property or citizens’ personal data degrade democracies’ competitiveness in key industries and open new vectors for manipulation; and economic coercion helps autocrats achieve geopolitical objectives. These tactics undermine and weaken the function of democracies from within.
Finally, operations short of armed conflict are central to 21st century geopolitics, and many find fertile ground in the information domain. Nation-states employ information manipulation across domains to boost existing deception and battlefield preparation efforts. In the South China Sea, China has combined military buildup—including the construction of artificial islands and naval bases—with an information manipulation campaign to assert its contested territorial claims. China has also used its economic clout to punish foreign actors for their speech: In October 2019, Beijing censored National Basketball Association broadcasts to China after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. A national security paradigm that ignores information as a contested domain or views it solely through the lens of elections risks leaving key areas unprotected.
Nation-state influence, particularly employing information, will be an enduring feature of near-term geopolitical competition. But a narrow focus on discrete, tactical operations misses the point. If policymakers are to strengthen and renew democracy in the information age, and to resist the global resurgence of authoritarianism, they cannot cede this strategic contest of values.