Digital defense and disinformation
Democratic countries haven’t even started take seriously attacks on their information infrastructure by authoritarian governments: hacking, doxxing and disinformation. The same two Russian hacking groups have infiltrated the US Congress, the US State and Defense Departments, the Democratic National Committee, the German Bundestag and party think tanks, the Danish and Italian foreign ministries, l World Anti-Doping Agency and many other targets. .
In addition, Russia has launched disinformation campaigns to influence elections and referendums – in favor of Brexit; against US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor candidate and now Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and the Dutch vote on the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, to take just a few prominent examples. Russian state media and state-linked accounts have flooded social media in Western countries with homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-vaccination, pro separatist, anti-NATO, anti-fracking and many other types of disinformation. The jury is still out on whether Russian efforts helped tip the balance in the 2016 US presidential election. What is certain is that a foreign power played a significant role in the election, what a democracy cannot allow.
The problem is, we haven’t approached this as a larger threat to democracies, ignoring that the sources of hacking, doxxing, and disinformation are limited to a small group of autocratic states, primarily Russia, China. and Iran.
In tackling this well-known and by no means new threat, most democracies face two problems: First, a frozen and siled bureaucracy that lacks interdisciplinary and interagency collaboration and cooperation. This is where the first urgent need for change lies. Opponents use multiple digital attack vectors and easily combine them. Every democracy must recognize this and establish silo-crossing agencies that can tackle the whole problem and coordinate a swift response.
Second, existing efforts remain strictly national, with only half-hearted information sharing across borders. Clearly, when hacking attacks and disinformation campaigns all trace back to the same few sources, democracies need to cooperate rather than stand alone.
Strategies for dealing with cross-border threats require serious cross-border cooperation between democracies. When a hacking attempt or disinformation campaign is identified, other democracies must be informed and a common pool of information, preferably a common response, forged. Today’s main multilateral democratic institutions, NATO and the EU, are hampered by a narrow mandate and lack coherent policies. As a result, they only do the bare minimum.
In addition, a multilateral digital defense must be truly values-based. Unlike NATO and the EU, it should be accompanied by a strict mechanism by which countries retreating from democracy lose their digital security umbrella.
This is the only way to counter attempts to undermine what is so dear to us.