28 August 2020

Fake News and Election Interference

'The Free Speech Blind Spot: Foreign Election Interference on Social Media' by Evelyn Douek  in Combating Election Interference: When Foreign Powers Target Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2020) comments

 The current system for monitoring and removal of foreign election interference on social media is a free speech blind spot. Social media platforms’ standards for what constitutes impermissible interference are vague, enforcement is seemingly ad hoc and inconsistent, and the role governments play in deciding what speech should be taken down is unclear. This extraordinary opacity — at odds with the ordinary requirements of respect for free speech — has been justified by a militarized discourse that paints such interference as highly effective, and “foreign” speech as uniquely pernicious. But, in fact, evidence of such campaigns’ effectiveness is limited and the singling out and denigration of “foreign” speech is at odds with the traditional justifications for free expression. 

Hiding in the blind spot created by this foreign-threat, securitized framing are more pervasive and fundamental questions about online public discourse, such as how to define appropriate norms of online behavior more generally, who should decide them and how they should be enforced. Without examining and answering these underlying questions, the goal that removing foreign election interference on social media is meant to achieve — reestablishing trust in the online public sphere — will remain unrealized.

'Repress/redress: what the “war on terror” can teach us about fighting misinformation' by Alexei Abrahams and Gabrielle Lim in (2020) Mis/information Review comments

Misinformation, like terrorism, thrives where trust in conventional authorities has eroded. An informed policy response must therefore complement efforts to repress misinformation with efforts to redress loss of trust. At present, however, we are repeating the mistakes of the war on terror, prioritizing repressive, technologically deterministic solutions while failing to redress the root sociopolitical grievances that cultivate our receptivity to misinformation in the first place. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the globe, societies have simultaneously been buffeted by an “infodemic” of conspiracy theories and phoney medical advice, seemingly peddled by pamphleteers and presidents alike. As with the virus, the manner in which societies choose to address the phenomenon of misinformation may have consequences for decades to come. In this essay, we argue that the Western policy response to misinformation thus far shares a troubling affinity to its response to terrorism a generation ago, in the wake of 9/11. Superficially, of course, the nascent war on misinformation looks nothing like the war on terror when comparing the sheer scale of violence and destruction. More abstractly, however, the Western policy responses across both campaigns share a common denominator, namely, a reflexive tendency to see both terrorism and misinformation as nuisance phenomena that should be repressed, rather than symptoms of underlying sociopolitical maladies that should be redressed. Like terrorism, misinformation is seen not as endemic, but as an aberration foisted upon society from the outside, whether by malicious foreign actors or domestic misfits. In reality, however, terrorism is often symptomatic of frustration with political authorities, and misinformation likewise thrives where trust in authorities has eroded. Consequently, we predict that the war on misinformation, like the war on terror, will substantially be a war on symptoms — protracted and futile. In tandem with palliative measures, we advocate for a concerted effort to redress root grievances and restore faith in our political system. 

After the devastating attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001, the United States and her Western allies declared a global “war on terror,” aiming not only to prevent further attacks on American and European soil, but to seek and destroy terrorist safe havens in the anarchic peripheries of failed states across western Asia. Wrathful and resolute, the Western coalition initially adopted a predominantly repressive approach to counterinsurgency (COIN), seeking to identify, kill, arrest, render, deport, and freeze the assets of suspected terrorists: in short, to deny them the “means” of attacking. 

This repressive, means-denying approach was consistently favored over its theoretical alternative, the “hearts and minds” approach to COIN, which aims to redress the political grievances motivating citizens to sympathize with, support, and give succor to the terrorists. Indeed, months before 9/11, a University of California political science professor published a book, Blowback, in which he predicted that American empire-building activities abroad were stoking hatred and resentment that would soon translate into retaliatory violence (Johnson, 2000). His prescient remarks were ignored not only before, but also after the twin towers fell, and far into the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. Whether in official state missives or Hollywood dramatizations, the persistent question on the minds of many Americans, “why do they hate us?”, continued to be answered by othering the terrorists as irrational fanatics. Whether calling itself Al-Qaeda or the Taliban or Hamas or Hezbollah or ISIS, the supposed ideological intransigence of this ubiquitous enemy implied that negotiations were impossible across the board; a military solution was the only option. 

Interestingly, it was the military (specifically, the United States Marine Corps) that first recognized the inadequacy of this repression doctrine. Starting in 2007, during the occupation of Iraq, the Marines updated their field manual to espouse a more “hearts and minds” approach (Nagl et al., 2008). At the time, Iraqi insurgents were waging an effective urban guerilla war that hinged on the complicity of Iraqi civilians. If the Marines could win over the population, so the theory went, the civilians would reciprocate by ratting out the insurgents. Sure enough, a series of neighborhood-level development initiatives did indeed seem to curry favor with Iraqi civilians and coincided with localized drawdowns in insurgent violence (Berman et al., 2011). 

Though an important advancement in American military doctrine, casting the “hearts and minds” approach as a counterinsurgency strategy misses the larger intellectual departure. Addressing citizens’ political grievances is not really counterinsurgency, it is just plain politics. Indeed, in Iraq, the American military was all too uncomfortably aware that it was being asked to fill not only a security vacuum but also a political one (Schadlow, 2017). To shift from a repressive, means-denying approach to a redressive, motives-oriented approach is to shift from plotting military operations to doing community outreach. Instead of burdening the military with the task of tracking down and killing terrorists, it would be up to civilian policymakers to work with marginalized communities to help redress their grievances so that they do not become hotbeds of extremism. In the decades after 9/11, however, American policymakers largely did the exact opposite, alienating (Razack, 2008) and stigmatizing (Marzouki, 2017) Muslims at home while ramping up drone strikes and prolonging controversial and destabilizing military occupations abroad. By casting the phenomenon of terrorism in strictly martial terms, the previous generation of policymakers “securitized” what was substantively a political matter. Instead of exhausting all redressive options before turning to repression, policymakers operated in reverse, treating politics as something one resorts to only after violence fails. Instead of redressing the root causes of political discontent, they mandated the military to prosecute an unwinnable global war on its symptoms — with devastating consequences for life and liberty both abroad and at home.