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Historically speaking, the authoritarian world has just achieved its second great hack on the ‘Western brand’. The first one happened gradually after the Cold War as dictators learnt to incorporate aspects of the free market model into their economies without succumbing to democratisation. Thus, they put paid to fleeting notions that Soviet collapse marked an ‘End of History’, as defined by the contest for legitimacy and durability among rival, political models.
Two decades later, liberal optimists were again making ambitious assumptions, this time that the Internet would act like a global, democratic fertiliser by expanding the public means to rally and interact.
But it turns out these tools are a boon to autocrats as well as reformers, helping them to dupe the democratic urge via the combined manipulation of traditional and social media. Internally, this mixture works like a carefully controlled steam valve for venting and channelling public opinion. Further afield, it allows the world’s strongmen to piggy-back on Western pluralism, most notably by propagating divisive, online agitprop and masking state-backed media output as ‘alternative’ or ‘respectable’ news.
Big tech evangelists claim to offer a range of solutions to this authoritarian propaganda renaissance, including outright censorship and curbing bad memes, blocking coordinated inauthentic behaviour, enhancing transparency around political advertising, signposting newsfeeds with warnings or context-primers, and up-weighting alternative or less politicised content.
In reality, the sheer volume of online activity renders comprehensive and intelligent moderation of major sharing platforms nigh on impossible. The most pernicious foreign propaganda, moreover, tends to sit in a grey zone of legitimacy between fake news and mere counterpoint, which defies objective criteria for identification and censorship.
Perhaps an even greater problem, however, is that the West is essentially powerless to change the underlying, behavioural nature of the social web or its relationship with the broader transformation of Western public culture over the past decade.
The digital boost to public expression has engendered an epochal fixation on individual empowerment, which has clearly been immeasurably positive. But it has also spurred new tendencies towards self-righteous, grievance culture as a natural way to express such empowerment. Meanwhile, rising levels of economic and political discontent have galvanised the general appeal of challenging anything that smacks of the so-called status quo. These trends have evolved concurrently and in close collaboration. They are also greatly amplified by the factor of psychology, as social media taps into the universal, human craving for attention and social validation, which plays a significant role in perpetuating theatrical fundamentalism and point-scoring, praise-seeking tribalism.
In other words, the real threat the West faces from information warfare lies in our enemy’s newfound ability to exploit a complex chimera of untameable technology, neoliberal backlash, modern empowerment chic and cyber-enhanced egomania. The combined implication is that Western digital society can never be truly fortified against the ever-adaptable manipulation of its own internal malaise, and we must surely consider doing more in the realm of information warfare deterrence.
For if liberal democracy holds unique vulnerabilities to the social media age, then so does autocracy in its existential fear of embarrassment. While uproar and ridicule are standard, daily fare in a truly pluralist media, despots typically harbour domino-style fears of anything that seriously challenges their confected aura of strength and virtue.
Accordingly, Western governments should find their stomach to harness and weaponise the power of strongman embarrassment as a response to major, foreign influence incursions. Payloads of sensitive information and declassified intelligence could be tailored for dissemination within the domestic sphere of a culprit regime and focused on typical areas of authoritarian insecurity, such as kleptocratic wealth and corruption, human rights abuses, and suppressed data on economic woes or the hidden, military cost of foreign adventurism.
This kind of thinking is actually nothing new. The Barack Obama administration reportedly considered doing something similar in response to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election but never followed through. Three decades earlier, the Ronald Reagan administration pioneered the Active Measures Working Group – a cross-government initiative that saw significant success in challenging Soviet narratives with an innovative range of high-profile publications and roadshow briefings. Crucially, these outputs were publicly declared, openly verified and varyingly packaged for different audiences and media formats.
At the very least, such a tactic might give meddling autocrats a new sense of cost-benefit calculus for the future, particularly if it inflames their domestic opposition. It would also do nothing to contradict our headline policy of encouraging others to respect the rules-based international order.
Joel Faulkner Rogers is an Associate Fellow at RUSI.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Today Testing/CC BY-SA 4.0
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.