Picture Kyiv in the 1950s, well behind the iron curtain and firmly under the grip of the Soviet Union. The terror of Stalin is omnipresent, and neighbors start disappearing, picked up off the streets walking home from work or pulled from their homes in the middle of the night. A friend disappears and soon KGB agents come to your door to ask questions about their habits, focused on one question in particular: what kind of books did they read?
Throughout most authoritarian regimes in history, information has been restricted by those in power. Whether it’s through physically removing information by burning books or outlawing certain types of speech and information flows, authoritarian governments dedicate entire ministries to preventing the public from certain knowledge. The level of resources dedicated to hiding, censoring, or destroying information highlighted a key insight to the liberal democratic world: information is the most powerful weapon against authoritarianism.
Authoritarian regimes still utilize many of the old tactics of censorship: banning books and websites, shutting down certain parts of the internet, and arresting those that preach versions of the truth that the government does not like. However, the introduction of anonymous online speech provided a new flow of information, difficult for authoritarian regimes to censor. Social media allows for whistleblowers, activists, and civil society groups to spread information publicly without the fear of KGB operatives coming to arrest them. Information in the public space shapes new narratives, where individual citizens have control, allowing for online investigation and more accountability for the government.
In theory, the development of social media as an information flow should be a societal good. The dissidents of the past have reclaimed a space online to hold the government accountable for their actions while protected by the anonymity of the internet. This new system should promote greater individual self-determination, voices from the minority, and democracy from the people, all values that Americans hold dear. However, through the internet, authoritarian regimes have developed some effective tricks to censor and manipulate the population more effectively than they have in the past.
One key tactic is manipulating the narrative. Russia is particularly adept at manipulation today, learning from its attempts at influencing media narratives and populations during the Cold War (known as active measures). Through state-run media outlets, fake media and online accounts run by troll farms, Russian-paid journalists for real Western newspapers, and government social media accounts, Russia can shape a dangerous and influential narrative for both Russian and foreign audiences. For example, during the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian state media insisted that their forces were local militia and protesters upset by the Euromaidan events in Kyiv. According to them, the warfare was antagonized by Ukrainian military forces trying to put down the anti-government protesters and Russia played no role in the conflict. Any social media posts to the contrary were bombarded with Twitter users defending Russia and condemning Ukraine. The volume of defense was deafening too, with Russian outlets and social media users repeating the lie constantly, creating an echo chamber to convince both Russian civilians and foreign observers that Russia was not involved in Ukraine. This Russian narrative manipulation ultimately worked, as Eastern Ukraine remains largely independent of Kyiv’s control today and little action has been taken from liberal democracies around the globe to prevent the Russian invasion.
Another newer tactic is censorship through noise. This strategy is often deployed by the Chinese government. Dissidents or activists will gather online and begin talking or posting about a problem with the Chinese government, such as human rights abuses against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Within minutes, hundreds of Chinese accounts will begin posting about a different story, perhaps US involvement in Afghanistan, effectively drowning out any criticism of the government. The posts from the activists get lost in the hundreds of posts about Afghanistan, preventing their intended audience from accessing them.
For both strategies, disinformation is a key component. Repeating falsehoods intentionally in an echo chamber has a powerful effect, and if you’re able to convince enough individuals that your lie is true, people will act on behalf of the lie. This is where authoritarian regimes have the upper hand against the United States and other liberal democracies: they know how to disseminate disinformation, drown out dissidents, and tell stories in the way that they want much better than liberal democracies do. This in turn creates action from those convinced of the lie, such as anti-vaxxers protesting in the United States or conspiracy theorists attacking politicians in Europe. In sum, authoritarian regimes have found a way to take the most powerful weapon against them and mutate it into a weapon that they can use against democracy.
What can liberal democracies do against this imbalance of skill? In the military, offset strategy seeks to rectify a strategic or technical weakness by using a relative strength. Basically, if you’re weak at one skill compared to an adversary, use your strengths to find a different way to compete with them. For the United States, our strengths against authoritarian information control lie in two places: our values of freedom, human rights, and liberal democracy, and our cultural image. These two strengths, if used correctly, can offset America’s relative weakness in the information space against authoritarian regimes.
Firstly, the United States has always been seen as the defender of human rights and individual freedoms around the world. Institutions such as USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy promote global health, women’s rights, media freedom, and minority empowerment amongst many other key areas of democratic society. And while the United States has not always been successful in its mission or has acted against its own values, the institutions are intended to be a tool to help bolster countries around the world. These democratic networks promote a stronger media and more power to the people despite authoritarian governments attempting to use their informational advantage to break down those networks. American institutions that promote our values are still one of our best tools in the fight against foreign disinformation and information manipulation.
Secondly, American culture is still a powerful force in the world. Movies that promote a sense of freedom from tyranny and power to the people work against deceitful information promoted by authoritarian regimes. American cultural figures, such as Captain America or John McClane, still dominate television sets around the world and American cultural appreciation is globally widespread. This cultural strength in relation to countries like China or Russia gives the United States an opportunity to combat disinformation and authoritarianism through widely consumed media, like television series, YouTube videos, music, film, and books.
By investing in our strengths, the United States should be able to engage in a global information campaign, driving out the online strengths of authoritarianism and continuing to fight for global democracy. Information is still our greatest weapon against authoritarianism and tyranny and only through an informational offset strategy will we be able to promote democracy worldwide.
The opinions of this blog post are solely of the author and not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Renew America Together.