The threat to democracies from information insecurity

After the recent midterm elections, Americans are breathing a sigh of relief that social-media-fuelled threats of violence against voters and election officials didn’t materialise. It’s a disturbing sign of the times that a peaceful vote is a pleasant surprise.

What is driving some people to reject the legitimacy of fair elections, embrace conspiracy theories and even resort to political violence? We believe the answer lies in a novel threat to democracies around the world: information insecurity.

Information insecurity is much more than vulnerability to propaganda. It is the deliberate and systematic distortion—enabled and heightened by digital capabilities—of an entire information ecosystem.

Consider the parallels to natural disasters and climate insecurity. In the past, we dealt with hurricanes, droughts and floods as isolated emergencies. Today, we understand climate change as a threat to entire systems of agriculture, energy and public safety. Similarly, we once addressed famine with case-by-case responses. Today, we understand food insecurity as a permanent threat not only to life but also to social cohesion and political stability.

Systemic threats require systemic responses that address the enabling technological conditions. Our 20th-century tactics—isolating or blocking channels of propaganda broadcast by our adversaries—won’t suffice. Those channels were broadcast by a limited number of known sources that were easily recognisable by origin, vector and contrast to conventional media fare.

Today’s information operations are multicast across hundreds of channels—optimising speech and reach by using an interplay of broadcast and digital media, including social media, and leveraging the techniques of online advertising, targeting and algorithmic manipulation to maximise audience size. For example, the Kremlin not only pushes its Ukraine-related propaganda over state media channels, both broadcast and digital, but also relies on a large network of covert digital channels across multiple languages and platforms. These channels spread conspiracy theories about Nazis in Kyiv, blame the West for the absence of food shipments blocked by Russia and stoke unrest in the European Union over energy prices and refugees.

These tactics amplify homegrown conspiracies and blur the distinction between foreign and domestic agents. Moreover, the objective isn’t simply to persuade but to weaken confidence in facts and to sow suspicion of ‘fake news’ everywhere. Algorithms tuned to maximise attention accelerate the effect.

Autocratic governments like China respond to this threat by seizing control over both the production and distribution of media domestically. Though the authorities can’t eliminate all dissenting views online, they prevent any major disruption to the party line. Russia has chosen a similar approach—albeit with far less efficiency.

Democracies must find another way. In democratic societies, freedom of expression is essential both as a basic human right and as a principal mechanism of holding government accountable. In our response to information threats, we must ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease.

We cannot delete our way out of this problem. To respond to information insecurity without restricting freedom of expression, we must address the structure of the market and the logic of a business model that privileges controversy over integrity. This means directly engaging the big technology platforms (largely American and Chinese) that hold unprecedented control over global information distribution.

These firms didn’t cause the social problems that drive contemporary political conflict. But they are the single biggest factor in accelerating trends towards extremism. Despite their efforts to curb illegal activity and thwart exploitation of their services, their products are still designed to profit from outrage and remain vulnerable to widespread abuse.

Meanwhile, the market power they wield over advertising has gutted the commercial viability of traditional journalism, which once stabilised democratic politics by establishing a consensus about basic facts. Many traditional news media outlets have responded by joining the race to the bottom.

Democratic governments should treat information systems as critical infrastructure, just like gas, water, electricity and telecommunications. The first step is to require American platforms Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to curb the exploitation of their services by authoritarian governments mounting deliberate disinformation campaigns. To harden democracies’ defences further, we need standards for information markets against which to assess possible security risks, such as the impact of Chinese control over TikTok (the most popular platform among young people).

These standards must not be governments dictating what content is allowed and not allowed on media channels. That is a decision for private actors to make, as they have. But while every technology platform in the market today has rules governing content and behaviour as well as the collection and use of personal data, too often they do a poor job of applying their own rules. Government regulators should hold them to their promises and set additional standards for consumer protection, in the same way that we regulate the safety of food, pharmaceutical and natural resource industries.

To reconnect citizens with a common base of facts, democracies must strengthen public-service journalism. One approach is to use competition policies—such as those recently applied by Australia—that compel tech companies with market power over digital advertising to negotiate revenue-sharing agreements with news organisations. Taxes on digital transactions can also be used to boost investment in public media, local media, media literacy and journalism schools.

Rules, standards and investments in the media marketplace are not simply economic policies. They are security imperatives, alongside green energy and public health. Unless we act soon, our information security will weaken further, dividing us against ourselves. Autocrats and domestic rabble-rousers can then shape a self-serving narrative of intensifying democratic dysfunction.

US President Joe Biden’s national security strategy, released in October, identifies a set of ‘transnational challenges’ that are not ‘secondary to geopolitics’ but lie ‘at the very core of national and international security’. These challenges include climate change, food security, communicable diseases, energy shortages and inflation. Information insecurity belongs on that list, too, because it exacerbates these other challenges and poses its own grave threat to democracy.