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An Alliance of Silicon Valley and Washington Can Save American Democracy

Russian influence campaigns are enjoying a renaissance and are likely choosing their next target. Since Vladimir Putin rose to prominence in Russian politics in 1999, Russia has run complicated influence campaigns in several countries. The term that is in vogue in the industry to describe these interventions is “hybrid warfare.” For years, Russia has had stunning success in destabilizing typical peripheral foes like Ukraine and Georgia. However, the American influence operation is presently the 9th symphony in Russian information war. With that said, this particular operation has been so successful, because it sowed significant doubt in the efficacy of American democracy, not because it was successful in changing the election outcome.

Because Russian active measures are working most effectively in how Americans interact with their elections, and how they inform their vote, the United States is at risk of democratic backsliding as a result. This Administration is already contemplating walking down such a path.

The President of the United States has often used the term “fake news” as a pejorative towards mainstream media (another favorite pejorative) outlets he does not like. He has eschewed the apolitical administrative state (much to the satisfaction of his senior advisor Steve Bannon) in favor of a shadow bureaucracy run by his daughter and her husband. The West Wing no longer believes in a regular conversation with the press. Dialogue among groups that support the president is centered, not how to prevent Russian intervention in our democratic processes, but whether or not that intervention happened in the first place. This long list of events alarmingly rhyme with the Putin regime’s democratic backsliding in the early 2000s, where media became the enemy and the truth is fluid when it came to the interest of the state. This does not have to happen here.

In order to save American democracy from a permanent departure of truth and norms, America must take a more proactive approach when it comes to securing its information spaces from foreign influence campaigns. Presently, we can assume that Russian tactics are evolving past those used in 2016. Some social media platforms are introducing processes to flag fake news, but to prevent an evolved attack, social media sites are largely unprepared.

A recent think piece from details a grim future where hybrid warfare combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning can create custom influence operations at the individual level. However, by combining the best minds in social media, cyber security, and intelligence, the very methods used to conduct influence campaigns could be used to expose them. Such tools would not delete intelligence operation material but show it for what it is. Imagine browsing Facebook to see a link shared by that fringe person you know only to see it flagged with “this article is a construction of a foreign intelligence service meant to misinform.” Not only would such a tool prevent the dissemination of misinformation, it would give social media users a more palpable sense the direction in which state or non-state actors are trying to sway their opinion.

A recent piece in the Washington Post detailed just how difficult it is for an administration to push back against an ongoing influence operation. For example the Obama Administration, while attempting to ward off Russian interference, could not be perceived to be politically meddling. Also, retaliation runs the risk of a runaway spiral of retaliations that could potentially result in terrible damage to infrastructure in both countries. Insulating social media, search engines, and other information spheres from intelligence operations is to hybrid warfare what the anti-ballistic missile is to nuclear warfare.

Essential reading for working members of this alliance should be Peter Pomerantsev’s 2014 book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. The book details an extravagantly structured political and information sphere in Russia where narrative is tightly controlled, and truth means only what the state wills it to be. President Trump’s use of false information and social media is worthy of a book, let alone a passing mention in this article, but the tools proposed here could even insulate the president’s twitter feed from a deluge of bots – which are likely the infrastructure put in place for future influence campaigns. This creates the potential nightmare scenario where a foreign intelligence source can flood the president’s mentions (which he loves to browse) with a manufactured crisis or foreign policy direction and watch as he follows. Twitter must have the tools to prevent this scenario.

From a governmental perspective, this initiative should come with an extensive and powerful oversight mechanism – A 2017 iteration of the Church Committee to protect against surveillance overreach. This would prevent the initiative from turning into something akin to the Great Firewall of China, or Russia’s on/off switch on internet access. Freedom champions often turn into inadvertent supporters of democratic backsliding by arguing for the anarchic media sphere where everything is free fame. Such sentiment is important in the context of individual privacy but dangerous in a time of weaponized information. The burden should no longer be on the individual consumer to identify an intelligence operation and sound journalism. Allowing anarchic information spheres is essentially open-sourcing America’s response to hybrid warfare. Other conflicts are obviously not open-sourced, since this approach is akin to asking anyone who cares about the Taliban to take their guns to Afghanistan. It is too much to ask citizens individually to fight an information war with the Russians.