‘Defending democracy’ a losing strategy against authoritarian narratives
1 Sep 2023|

Not so long ago, the consensus around defending democracy on the internet was nearly a settled matter. A sort of de facto understanding held that to fight disinformation and defend democracy, we should resist the impulse to try to control information or the behaviour of authoritarians we oppose.

The statement of values, though, does little to blunt the power of illiberal narratives on the democratic imagination.

If anything, Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter (now X) highlights the folly of approaches that rely on simply policing social media—because what happens when the mind of one of those policing (in this case, the platform’s owner) is won over by the Kremlin’s narratives on Ukraine?

Musk’s invocations of ‘free speech’ actually make the platform more accommodating to the sorts of voices that embrace Kremlin propaganda with gusto.

But X is just one platform among a growing array of communication options.

And it’s across this galaxy that the Kremlin, its proxies and its friends level accusations at Western democracy (‘imperialism!’), frame events (‘NATO expansionism!’) and draw ominous conclusions (‘deep state-controlled propaganda media!’). Opponents are told we’re ‘Russophobic’ and that our values threaten their ‘traditional’ civilisations.

Likewise, the People’s Republic of China racialises political debates, accusing critics of xenophobia. This muddies the real issue of racism in democracy, while falsely presenting the Chinese Communist Party as a spokesperson for the racially vilified.

These influences point back to a well-established conundrum for liberal society: how do we ensure that our own freedoms aren’t used by adversaries to undermine our society and its interests?

Classifying these views as ‘disinformation’, as has become the custom, isn’t entirely accurate. Many of these ideas have their origins in democracies, or at least find an audience here.

We need to think less about how to police content on networks to ‘defend democracy’ and consider how to defend our minds and political culture against the arguments, views and ideas that dismember and neutralise liberal democracy’s values.

Ideas rarely stand alone; they are inevitably linked to other ideas.

So, when the Russian foreign ministry claimed last year that Russia would be ‘forced to take retaliatory steps’ if Finland joined NATO, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek correctly noted that the ‘decision appears “forced” only if one accepts the whole set of ideological and geopolitical assumptions that sustain Russian politics’.

Similarly, by defending against the accusation of ‘Russophobia’, Westerners accept the possibility that racism towards Russians is our motivation, rather than the reality that Western states (and Ukraine) are responding to the state activity of Russia.

At every turn, Russian narratives seek to introduce a dissembling logic that inverts our democratic reasoning.

Part of why Russia can reach so deeply into democracies is its fluency with Western liberal culture. Much of the Russian political class see themselves as speaking from a moral high ground on contested issues, perpetually ‘misunderstood by the West’, perpetually under attack and perpetually justified in responding.

As the Australian National University’s Kyle Wilson notes, Russians’ view of Russia, as formulated by the regime-controlled media, is as a ‘repository of superior values’. The Kremlin’s view of Russia, he says, can be summarised as: ‘We are different, we are unique, we are superior and we are under attack.’

Faced with Russia’s particular complaints, we should recall an idea underpinning liberal democracy—universality. Understanding our own instinct for universality is the foundation of a strategy for pushing back against authoritarians: it can help democratic citizens understand their worldview and how its impact doesn’t and shouldn’t end at the jurisdiction of a state.

Russia’s (and increasingly China’s) stock in trade in the internet era is to identify voices and events inside democracies that can be co-opted to advance authoritarian narratives. Black Lives Matter protests, for example, are framed not as emphatic calls for reform, but as emblems of an irredeemably unjust society. Coordinating state messaging from overseas with the agitation of democratic citizens is a sort of card trick that authoritarian nations are adept at.

When ‘free-speech advocates’ agitate against US foreign policy positions, their words are picked up in Russia’s or China’s state-sponsored reporting. Protesters in democracies are fed a steady diet of carefully chosen images and arguments amplified by authoritarian state-backed media and social media networks. Consequently, democracies are continually allowing their language to be shaped by illiberal voices.

This is why the defence of democracy cannot be accomplished through piecemeal removal of specific content across digital networks. Nor can it be achieved through better disinformation research.

Instead, citizens need their own narrative framings that ensure the language we use to describe the world reflects the world we want to live in, not the language proffered by Russia or China. When democracy is attacked, citizens shouldn’t have to grasp futilely for evidence, examples or arguments in favour of our system of politics; we should be readily armed.

Author Peter Pomerantsev noted that the Kremlin, through its contradictory, false narratives, is assaulting the link between facts and justice. Technology makes the rupture easier.

When truth on the internet is under attack, we need to rely on our minds as a backstop.

Rather than defending democracy by waiting for evidence of digital manipulation that can be ‘called out’, we should generate content from a set of assumptions that sustain democracy and compete for the attention of the global public.

The first step would be to raise the volume of the debate on issues like human rights and limits on power, and raise it to a level that holds Russia and China to their own rhetoric in international affairs.

Both countries cite the UN charter, for example. Both are UN Security Council members. Where are the robust voices demanding that they heed the principles of that agreement and body?

To mount these arguments, democracies must be able to articulate their position in terms the global public can understand.

‘We must become better—and more agile—at explaining ourselves in terms and principles relevant to others’ circumstances, rather than assuming that everyone is sold on “Democracy 101”,’ said former Australian ambassador to Russia Peter Tesch.

With that achieved, the public would then learn how to better counter, contextualise or ignore the proliferation of various Kremlin narratives.

Recent revelations that a subeditor at Radio New Zealand was adjusting copy to conform to the Kremlin’s worldview show that there will always be people in liberal democracies who are willing to accept the ‘putinoid’ view of the world.

If the universality of our liberal ideals is understood, discussed, shared more widely and reflected across our institutions, such outbreaks of Kremlin counternarratives are less worrying. Facing a cascade of detail and complexity, the human mind can lean on these ideals for guidance.

We can also take some comfort that this situation isn’t new. Liberal nations have always struggled in the pursuit of a system that embraces freedom of thought and expression.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, democracies found to their shock that their ally of convenience, the Soviet Union, had, with no notice, turned its propaganda and espionage energies once again back against them. In those days, the stakes of a great-power contest didn’t need to be explained to a public that had experienced decades of intermittent war.

In that era, American diplomat George Kennan sketched out what became the US policy of ‘containment’ to support countries ‘resisting attempted subjugation’ by Moscow. Contrast that with today, when components of our society—in politics, security, business, the economy—have to be roused from a neoliberal dream to face the uncomfortable fact that a US–Russia–China great-power contest is happening, won’t go away and requires a whole-of-nation defence.

Today, like in 1946, there is a need for a containment strategy. But this time, in addition to helping contain attacks on countries like Ukraine, democracies need to contain the subjugation of their liberal ideas and language. If we can do that, the battle against Russia’s and China’s messaging can move from the domain of governments to the imagination and will of the public.

Once that happens, democracy will have a fighting chance against the narrative power of Moscow and Beijing in the networked age.