The stakes in this year's US presidential election are arguably higher than in 2016. However, fears about foreign interference in US elections have only grown in the last four years. Instead of traditional weapons, foreign opponents are once again turning to social media to undermine the upcoming elections, and in 2020 alone there was widespread disinformation about the coronavirus, political unrest and the integrity of the elections. According to a new study by the Gallup / Knight Foundation, 4 in 5 Americans are concerned that incorrect information will affect the November vote.
This problem does not go unnoticed by the US government. Indeed, the current US National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy, which have traditionally focused on conventional military power, underscore the importance of information warfare in international conflicts and in undermining the legitimacy of elections. Even so, the United States does not yet have a clear strategy to combat information warfare.
Meanwhile, authoritarian states are ramping up the use of disinformation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clear that China and Russia – the two countries that the NSS says pose the greatest threat to the United States – are using aggressive information warfare tactics to take advantage of the pandemic and undermine and undermine the liberal international order. While the United States is slow to respond to the onslaught of propaganda, that effort falls far short of what is necessary to effectively compete with China and Russia in the long term.
In the last few decades the information environment has developed into one of the main battlefields of great power competition. This is because information warfare can affect not only public opinion, but also the perception of how states compete in key areas such as public health and international development. Indeed, great powers use information warfare to instill internal discord and suspicion on the soil of their adversaries, preventing governments from focusing on external threats.
Disinformation is of course a critical component, but it is far from the only threat. Beijing and Moscow are actively experimenting with defensive and offensive information campaigns as an instrument of both domestic control and, increasingly, foreign policy. Defensive Information Warfare includes disinformation campaigns to discredit dissidents and the use of public data, for example to track down and arrest journalists. Offensive campaigns, on the other hand, undermine and disrupt other countries by using digital media platforms and artificial reinforcement through automated or fake accounts such as bots, trolls and sock puppets, as well as the distribution of syndicated media.
While these campaigns are most commonly associated with Russia, the Chinese government has also been quick to arm public intelligence and the cybersphere – especially during the pandemic. Beijing has been aggressively reinforcing false narratives about the origin of the coronavirus.
Zhao Lijian, a Chinese State Department spokesman, has falsely claimed on multiple occasions that the US Army visited Wuhan in 2019 to spread the virus, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also promoted disinformation that the United States is responsible for the US breaks out. In addition, it has actively promoted China's perception as a responsible global market leader through artificial amplification, even though defective COVID-19 test kits and masks have been sent to the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey, for example.
In the meantime, Moscow has used the coronavirus disinformation to fuel sentiment and movements against the European Union across Western Europe. This is in line with Russia's meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and underscores its efforts to undermine the EU and the United States at the same time.
The problems are far-reaching and, despite the increasing attention in the United States, the current political debate surrounding these information campaigns lacks clear – and necessary – long-term goals. To address threats from both China and Russia, the United States must do three things.
First, the US government should treat disinformation as if it were a serious threat to national security. Disinformation mitigation in the form of deleting suspicious inorganic accounts and posts will never be agile enough to keep online agitators and ignorant disseminators at bay: the Kremlin and the CCP can create or dispose of more accounts and trolls faster than other governments or corporations are removing can .
With that in mind, the US government and civil society organizations should take a step back and target the entire ecosystem of the spread of disinformation – including where it comes from, how it spreads, and how it affects it.
You should particularly focus on the automated mechanisms like bots and trolls that augment accounts and disinformation related to the foreign regime, as well as popular infiltration routes like syndicated media linked to accounts or websites related to the regime. (Washington has named Chinese state-run media outlets like Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, and the People's Newspaper as the CCP's foreign agents.) Technological solutions like automation detection will be key to identifying and targeting mass groups of accounts and content across digital media platforms.
Second, US security actors should expect disinformation from abroad to be an integral part of political and economic life throughout the pandemic. Now that national security analysts finally acknowledge this, the United States should offer much more than just labeling and reactive fact-checking of what social media companies have started.
It should quickly develop and implement a generally available public portal that would allow individuals and organizations to easily determine two things: where content is coming from (and whether it is from a reputable media company or from a well-known propaganda or conspiracy site) and how content is Medium have reached platform or socket. This is important information as a typical disinformation campaign starts from an unreliable source, such as the Russian state news agency Sputnik. is reinforced in regime social media; infiltrates western social media platforms; and is then occasionally picked up by major US media.
Third, both the public sector and business leaders should embrace and encourage public and private partnerships. Some of the best solutions to technological problems come from Silicon Valley. It is correct that the US government has set up several such programs under the Defense Innovation Board, including the Defense Innovation Unit and the National Security Innovation Network, to accelerate the deployment of new technologies that use artificial intelligence and data analysis. However, these initiatives are still hampered by complex bureaucracy and lengthy contract processes aimed at obtaining commercially available algorithmic solutions – an organizational problem that is widespread in all democracies.
Ultimately, the United States must take a more holistic approach to the technostrategic race that defines the current nature of great power competition with China and Russia. Any government agency responsible for information operations should organize and maintain an advisory board composed of think tanks and stakeholders from the academic and private sectors.
The country has done this before, for example with the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission and the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. However, both commissions are still too narrowly focused to fight the information war, which is notoriously difficult to pin down. Even the Department of Defense has recognized the need for integrated information warfare that transcends the traditional differences between cyberwar, psychological operations, and military deception.
Given the level of political polarization in the United States, some of which has been fueled by Russia itself, it will be difficult to fully address the problem, but it is not impossible. A promising idea came from Michael Lumpkin and Mark Mitchell, both former assistant secretaries of defense for special operations / low intensity conflicts, when they recently advocated the establishment of a secretary for influence operations at the Pentagon.
But the United States had to go further. A clear way of implementing the necessary steps would be to create a non-partisan, private-public commission on information warfare that overcomes the current bureaucratic and political divisions. This expert council should then meet regularly to discuss strategic challenges in the information environment and to find real solutions. This is not a new concept. Other great powers have similar institutions – for example, the Central Military Commission of China heads a science and technology commission. The United States just has to follow suit.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the use of disinformation by authoritarian regimes long overdue, but naming the problem is not enough. China and Russia have armed the information environment for too long, and democratic countries need to find ways to uphold the principles of an open society and organic online discourse. In the face of information warfare, the United States in particular has the dual advantages of technological innovation and an unparalleled national security apparatus. It is time to use it.