Avoiding the Trap: How not to Respond to Disinformation Campaigns

Responding to disinformation with more disinformation helps the authoritarians, and weakens our democracy, write Laura Rosenberger and Bradley Hanlon.

This is one of the most common questions we hear in briefings on ways to counter state-backed information operations.  But such an approach misunderstands both the nature of information operations and what it means to go on offense.  Responding in kind would not only be inconsistent with the democratic values under assault by these operations, but also would be a strategic blunder. If the goal of authoritarian information operations is to undermine the idea of the truth, engaging in their tactics in response would only further that goal. And taking actions that further constrains the information space, such as by regulating content, will help create the Internet that authoritarians have long sought. Instead, democracies need to think more creatively about how to employ their own advantages to counter and deter foreign interference while reinforcing trust in the information space.

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, an array of actors – primarily authoritarian regimes and their proxies – have adopted information operations as a low-cost means of interfering in and undermining democracies.  Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and – most recently – China, have all been caught engaging in what Facebook calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Seeing the effectiveness of these operations, domestic political groups and non-state actors have also gotten in the game. Some political operatives have even suggested that democracies should “fight fire with fire” by engaging in their own information operations to counter the activity of foreign manipulators.

At its core, manipulation of the information space is inconsistent with the democratic values of transparency and free speech – and with the functioning of democracy itself. Vibrant public debate is key to the health of a robust democracy, which is why authoritarians seek to subvert it by inserting and amplifying divisive or misleading narratives. Furthermore, as political scientist Michael Berkman has put it, “Democracy is founded on the idea that ordinary citizens have the capacity to understand things and make decisions.” This process requires that citizens have access to quality information and a sense of objective truth on which to base their decisions. While information operations often seek to shape perceptions of a specific event, policy, or historical memory, they also aim to devalue truth itself and undermine the integrity of the information space. For instance, after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, Russia sought to flood the information space with so many competing, contrasting, and conflicting narratives that citizens could no longer discern fact from fiction.

Responding in kind to authoritarian information operations, including by targeting their populations with manipulated information, would only multiply this effect, further reducing citizens’ trust in the information space. In other words, it would do manipulators’ work for them. Indeed, as more actors – including domestic actors – have entered the information manipulation game, our societies have become more, not less, vulnerable to manipulation by foreign actors. Look no farther than an attempt by a group of American political operatives to purportedly study the effect of Russian disinformation by creating fake social media accounts and pages during the 2017 Alabama special election. Russian state media seized on the operation to discredit the threat of information warfare and to undermine Americans’ confidence in their institutions. Citizens on both sides of the political aisle expressed dismay and concern about the dishonesty of the effort. The operation – which claims to have been intended to study the impacts of authoritarian information warfare – instead damaged confidence in the legitimacy of the election.

By using information operations to undermine democracies, authoritarian regimes are seeking to define the playing field on terms favorable to them. Modern information operations favor actors with few scruples about manipulation or deception, giving authoritarians an edge over their democratic counterparts who are – rightly – constrained by their values. Additionally, authoritarian actors have a different view of the information space – as something to be controlled. As a result, these regimes have developed a range of tools for shaping the information space, first targeted at and tested on their own citizens. In addition to digital tools, these methods include non-transparent influence over their media environment, allowing them to bring to bear a range of voices to spread falsehoods and distract from the truth.  At the same time, democracies’ openness creates fertile ground of weaponizing and manipulating information.

This slanted playing field means that democracies need to respond in a way that does not play to authoritarians’ advantages.  First, democracies need to defend the information space from such operations, but in ways that do not undercut their values.  That means taking steps to affirm the truth and the integrity of the information space, while closing off existing vulnerabilities that create opportunities for manipulators.  Democratic governments should redouble support for free and independent media, and employ a variety of information platforms to reach audiences with truthful narratives. Social media companies must also play a role by addressing the underlying mechanisms that authoritarian actors exploit to conduct these operations, and governments can play a role by requiring these platforms to be more transparent.  However, government attempts to regulate online content are counterproductive and ill-advised.  Focusing on content ignores many facets of the manipulative behavior employed in information operations while posing a real threat to free speech.  Beijing and Moscow have long pressed for a concept of “cyber sovereignty” in global discussions of cyber security, with the goal of controlling and restricting their information space. If democracies choose to police content and constrict public discussion, they will help create the Internet these regimes want. 

When it comes to going on offense, democracies should avoid the trap of combatting authoritarian regimes only on their lopsided battlefield, and instead define and employ their own asymmetric advantages.  Democratic governments – especially when acting in coordination – have the tools to impose diplomatic, economic, and reputational costs to deter authoritarian regimes.  These measures can also be tailored to maximize leverage over specific offenders.  In the case of Russia, this includes targeting the kleptocratic regime’s financial assets, especially as it pertains to Russian leaders’ reliance on Western financial institutions. For the Chinese Communist Party – which is more sensitive to its global image – this means piercing the benign narrative veil its information operations seek to construct by publicly exposing the truth about the regime and its coercive and manipulative behaviors. Democracies can also more aggressively use offensive cyber operations to undercut the ability of authoritarian regimes to conduct online information operations, as U.S. Cyber Command reportedly did ahead of the 2018 U.S. midterm elections when it launched an offensive cyberattack to take the Russian Internet Research Agency temporarily offline.

In responding to information operations, it’s important for all actors in democracies to remember what is at stake – democracy itself.  George Kennan wrote in his famous long telegram that“the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem [of the Soviet challenge]… is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.” Responding in kind would do just that – and authoritarian actors would win.




About the authors

Laura Rosenberger is the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). She was previously a foreign policy advisor for Hillary for America, and has served in the US State Department, and the National Security Council. Laura has an extensive background in Asia-Pacific region, particularly Northeast Asia.



Bradley Hanlon is a Research Assistant at the Alliance for Securing Democracy where he focuses on Russian information operations and authoritarian interference in the transatlantic space. He previously consulted for the Institute for the Study of War on Russian activity in the Middle East and North Africa, and worked as a civilian research assistant at the National War College.



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