During a hearing in Congress this week, Facebook, Twitter and Google authorities publicly recognized the role that their companies played in the influence strategy implemented by Russia during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Moscow couldn’t have dreamt of a better ally than social media to help achieve its aim of promoting victory for Donald Trump.
The submitted figures speak for themselves. Offices with more or less direct links to Russian authorities reportedly broadcast more than 1,000 videos on YouTube, published more than 131,000 tweets, and invested in thousands of cases of political advertising, reaching more than 126 million Facebook users. In this context, the representatives of the American people are well within their rights to oblige social media to reflect on their political responsibilities and to implement a more rigorous supervision of their activities.
Public Opinion Vulnerable to Propaganda
More fundamentally, the 2016 election highlights the remarkable vulnerability of American democracy when faced with propaganda and misinformation. This phenomenon is certainly not new. Rather, it is embedded within a larger dynamic whereby authoritarian regimes have spent recent years attempting to destabilize Western democracies.
Propaganda and misinformation have been perceived as key components —as have military tactics—in global strategies implemented by U.S. adversaries in order to target public opinion identified as being critically vulnerable. For example, Filipino insurgents tried to influence the presidential election in 1900 by denouncing violence committed by American troops. They even gained support from people with influence such as Mark Twain or Andrew Carnegie, who denounced President McKinley’s annexation proposal.
The Vietnam War is a textbook case, as the North Vietnamese regime was particularly skillful in its strategy of manipulating U.S. public opinion. The use of human shields, the exploitation of rules of engagement to increase American military casualties as well as those inflicted within civil populations, and the propagation of false information relayed by celebrities such as Jane Fonda or even respected New York Times journalists significantly contributed to the anti-war movement and to the U.S. defeat.
Clearly, progress in communication technology has facilitated the implementation and reach of propaganda operations. Easy to use and irresponsible in the sense that there is an objection to assuming control over published content, social media has naturally become the ideal vector. Especially in the U.S., social media constitute a source of information for around two-thirds of all adults.
An Existential Threat for Democracy
It’s true that using the most appropriate tools to try and influence another country’s political outcome is nothing inherently new. Even so, democracies, particularly the U.S., aren’t blameless in the matter. And there’s nothing unfair or worrisome in one day seeing them succumb to their own medicine.
The current situation is worrisome, however. As Thorsten Benn recently demonstrated in the magazine Foreign Affairs, Moscow’s willingness to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections is embedded within a larger trend, whereby authoritarian regimes are deploying increasingly sophisticated influence strategies. In this way, they have two main objectives.
On the one hand, they’re aiming to oppose what they perceive to be hostility from Western liberal democracies in order to ensure their survival. On the other hand, they’re trying to impose less liberal values on a new international management structure in order to preserve their zones of influence and/or their governing model. In order to reach these two objectives, they intend to discredit Western democracies, notably their electoral processes, and create dissension within and between them.
Stagnant for barely two decades, authoritarian regimes today appear strengthened and determined to weaken Western states. Although less apparent than Islamist terrorism, the threat is no less existential. However, it’s not the current occupant of the White House who will be the standard bearer of a potential counterattack.