Cybersecurity and Deterrence

Information Attacks on Democracies

By Henry Farrell, Bruce Schneier
Thursday, November 15, 2018, 10:35 AM

Democracy is an information system.

That's the starting place of our new paper: “Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy.” In it, we look at democracy through the lens of information security, trying to understand the current waves of Internet disinformation attacks. Specifically, we wanted to explain why the same disinformation campaigns that act as a stabilizing influence in Russia are destabilizing in the United States.

The answer revolves around the different ways autocracies and democracies work as information systems. We start by differentiating between two types of knowledge that societies use in their political systems. The first is common political knowledge, which is the body of information that people in a society broadly agree on. People agree on who the rulers are and what their claim to legitimacy is. People agree broadly on how their government works, even if they don't like it. In a democracy, people agree about how elections work: how districts are created and defined, how candidates are chosen, and that their votes count—even if only roughly and imperfectly.

We contrast this with a very different form of knowledge that we call contested political knowledge, which is, broadly, things that people in society disagree about. Examples are easy to bring to mind: how much of a role the government should play in the economy, what the tax rules should be, what sorts of regulations are beneficial and what sorts are harmful, and so on.

This seems basic, but it gets interesting when we contrast both of these forms of knowledge across autocracies and democracies. These two forms of government have incompatible needs for common and contested political knowledge.

For example, democracies draw upon the disagreements within their population to solve problems. Different political groups have different ideas of how to govern, and those groups vie for political influence by persuading voters. There is also long-term uncertainty about who will be in charge and able to set policy goals. Ideally, this is the mechanism through which a polity can harness the diversity of perspectives of its members to better solve complex policy problems. When no-one knows who is going to be in charge after the next election, different parties and candidates will vie to persuade voters of the benefits of different policy proposals.

But in order for this to work, there needs to be common knowledge both of how government functions and how political leaders are chosen. There also needs to be common knowledge of who the political actors are, what they and their parties stand for, and how they clash with each other. Furthermore, this knowledge is decentralized across a wide variety of actors—an essential element, since ordinary citizens play a significant role in political decision making.

Contrast this with an autocracy. There, common political knowledge about who is in charge over the long term and what their policy goals are is a basic condition of stability. Autocracies do not require common political knowledge about the efficacy and fairness of elections, and strive to maintain a monopoly on other forms of common political knowledge. They actively suppress common political knowledge about potential groupings within their society, their levels of popular support, and how they might form coalitions with each other. On the other hand, they benefit from contested political knowledge about nongovernmental groups and actors in society. If no one really knows which other political parties might form, what they might stand for, and what support they might get, that itself is a significant barrier to those parties ever forming.

This difference has important consequences for security. Authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to information attacks that challenge their monopoly on common political knowledge. They are vulnerable to outside information that demonstrates that the government is manipulating common political knowledge to their own benefit. And they are vulnerable to attacks that turn contested political knowledge—uncertainty about potential adversaries of the ruling regime, their popular levels of support and their ability to form coalitions—into common political knowledge. As such, they are vulnerable to tools that allow people to communicate and organize more easily, as well as tools that provide citizens with outside information and perspectives.

For example, before the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government had extensive control over common knowledge. It required everyone to publicly support the regime, making it hard for citizens to know how many other people hated it, and it prevented potential anti-regime coalitions from organizing. However, it didn’t pay attention in time to Facebook, which allowed citizens to talk more easily about how much they detested their rulers, and, when an initial incident sparked a protest, to rapidly organize mass demonstrations against the regime. The Arab Spring faltered in many countries, but it is no surprise that countries like Russia see the Internet openness agenda as a knife at their throats.

Democracies, in contrast, are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge. If people disagree on the results of an election, or whether a census process is accurate, then democracy suffers. Similarly, if people lose any sense of what the other perspectives in society are, who is real and who is not real, then the debate and argument that democracy thrives on will be degraded. This is what seems to be Russia’s aims in their information campaigns against the U.S.: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together. This is also the situation that writers like Adrien Chen and Peter Pomerantsev describe in today’s Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair.

This difference explains how the same policy measure can increase the stability of one form of regime and decrease the stability of the other. We have already seen that open information flows have benefited democracies while at the same time threatening autocracies. In our language, they transform regime-supporting contested political knowledge into regime-undermining common political knowledge. And much more recently, we have seen other uses of the same information flows undermining democracies by turning regime-supported common political knowledge into regime-undermining contested political knowledge.

In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society.

This framework not only helps us understand how different political systems are vulnerable and how they can be attacked, but also how to bolster security in democracies. First, we need to better defend the common political knowledge that democracies need to function. That is, we need to bolster public confidence in the institutions and systems that maintain a democracy. Second, we need to make it harder for outside political groups to cooperate with inside political groups and organize disinformation attacks, through measures like transparency in political funding and spending. And finally, we need to treat attacks on common political knowledge by insiders as being just as threatening as the same attacks by foreigners.

There’s a lot more in the paper.