The West’s victory in the Cold War was not just the product of a superior military. The real source of Western strength was its ideals and values, and their embodiment in a political and social system that valued the individual and their dignity as human beings. Democracy was the reason that the West prevailed in that titanic struggle. It is supremely ironic then that democracy has become a vulnerability as the West squares off against authoritarians in yet another great-power competition. The lesson of 2018 is that democrats around the world must rethink the basic operating procedures of their societies if they are to combat the threat to them that is generated by the very openness that they cherish.
The West believes that openness is a source of strength. Our societies are founded on the notion that open competition in the marketplace of ideas will separate truth from falsehood, fact from fiction. Only in the most extreme circumstances do we allow the government to meddle in that media sphere, fearing that legitimation of one intervention will create a slippery slope that inevitably undermines the entire system.
That core belief has been tested in the last year as evidence has mounted of campaigns by some governments to use the basic institutions of modern society to undermine democracies that they consider hostile. Only the willfully blind cannot see the political disinformation campaign that Russia waged in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to exploit divisions in that country and discredit its political processes and media institutions.
The U.S. is not the only target — France, Ukraine, Germany and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom have been manipulated — nor is Russia the only offender. China has interfered in Taiwanese politics, and is charged with especially aggressive behavior in the recent elections. In each case, the objective was not to create certain outcomes, but to sow distrust and unravel the social fabric that made those targets such formidable opponents. Increasingly, strategists consider such tactics another form of warfare, and they view the internet as the ultimate weapon of disinformation.
While almost all countries have developed offensive cyber capabilities, the intensifying focus on the institutions of governance is a unique threat to democracies. It is an especially ironic development since it was widely assumed that digital technologies were enablers of democracy — the Arab Spring of 2010 was anticipated to propagate a new democratic movement worldwide. Instead, social media have become means to inject vitriol, widen divisions and tear countries apart. No medium is immune. Facebook has been used to whip up racial hatred in Myanmar. Reportedly, even Pokemon Go was used to antagonize when participants were encouraged to pick especially offensive usernames.
Those techniques will become more sophisticated with the deployment of artificial intelligence and the development of “deep fakes” — deep-learning computer applications which generate fake video and audio recordings — that are virtually impossible to distinguish from the real thing. The capital needed to launch such offensives is relatively small, making the acquisition of those capabilities a very cost-effective tactic.
They are becoming more effective as democracies are increasingly dissatisfied with themselves. The wave of populism that has produced Brexit, authoritarian leaders in Europe and Latin America, and U.S. President Donald Trump reflects a gnawing doubt about the logic and desirability of democracy itself. There is a growing vogue for authoritarianism, and social media are an invaluable tool in the rise of the autocrats. Even here, just 40 percent of Japanese are satisfied with how democracy works in this country, a 10-percentage point drop in the last year, although there is little evidence of any appetite for the extreme measures being adopted elsewhere in the world.
There is no easy solution to this problem. The business model of social media firms, and increasingly much of the internet, is premised on expansion that emphasizes popularity and the propagation of memes; there is little regard for the truth or falsity of messages being spread. Moreover, policing content is virtually impossible.
More troubling still, the divisions that are being exploited are real. The social contract in many liberal democracies is fraying under the strain of increasing inequality and “the rise of the rest.” The world is changing and groups that are used to having power find their authority under siege. This is not unprecedented but it is invariably a messy and fraught process. The speed with which digital technologies spread messages compounds the potential for chaos and instability.
Ultimately, responsibility rests with ordinary citizens. They must be informed and educated, not only capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, but preferring the former to the latter. Ensuring that they are prepared is the most important challenge for the year to come, and one that inspires little optimism.