The Geopolitics of Information


Paper by Eric Rosenbach and Katherine Mansted: “Information is now the world’s most consequential and contested geopolitical resource. The world’s most profitable businesses have asserted for years that data is the “new oil.” Political campaigns—and foreign intelligence operatives—have shown over the past two American presidential elections that data-driven social media is the key to public opinion. Leading scientists and technologists understand that good datasets, not just algorithms, will give them a competitive edge.

Data-driven innovation is not only disrupting economies and societies; it is reshaping relations between nations. The pursuit of information power—involving states’ ability to use information to influence, decide, create and communicate—is causing states to rewrite their terms of engagement with markets and citizens, and to redefine national interests and strategic priorities. In short, information power is altering the nature and behavior of the fundamental building block of international relations, the state, with potentially seismic consequences.

Authoritarian governments recognize the strategic importance of information and over the past five years have operationalized powerful domestic and international information strategies. They are cauterizing their domestic information environments and shutting off their citizens from global information flows, while weaponizing information to attack and destabilize democracies. In particular, China and Russia believe that strategic competition in the 21st century is characterized by a zero-sum contest for control of data, as well as the technology and talent needed to convert data into useful information.

Democracies remain fundamentally unprepared for strategic competition in the Information Age. For the United States in particular, as the importance of information as a geopolitical resource has waxed, its information dominance has waned. Since the end of the Cold War, America’s supremacy in information technologies seemed unassailable—not least because of its central role in creating the Internet and overall economic primacy. Democracies have also considered any type of information strategy to be largely unneeded: government involvement in the domestic information environment feels Orwellian, while democracies believed that their “inherently benign” foreign policy didn’t need extensive influence operations.

However, to compete and thrive in the 21st century, democracies, and the United States in particular, must develop new national security and economic strategies that address the geopolitics of information. In the 20th century, market capitalist democracies geared infrastructure, energy, trade, and even social policy to protect and advance that era’s key source of power—manufacturing. In this century, democracies must better account for information geopolitics across all dimensions of domestic policy and national strategy….(More)”.

Democracy in Retreat: Freedom in the World 2019


Freedom House: “In 2018, Freedom in the World recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat.

In states that were already authoritarian, earning Not Free designations from Freedom House, governments have increasingly shed the thin façade of democratic practice that they established in previous decades, when international incentives and pressure for reform were stronger. More authoritarian powers are now banning opposition groups or jailing their leaders, dispensing with term limits, and tightening the screws on any independent media that remain. Meanwhile, many countries that democratized after the end of the Cold War have regressed in the face of rampant corruption, antiliberal populist movements, and breakdowns in the rule of law. Most troublingly, even long-standing democracies have been shaken by populist political forces that reject basic principles like the separation of powers and target minorities for discriminatory treatment.

Some light shined through these gathering clouds in 2018. Surprising improvements in individual countries—including Malaysia, Armenia, Ethiopia, Angola, and Ecuador—show that democracy has enduring appeal as a means of holding leaders accountable and creating the conditions for a better life. Even in the countries of Europe and North America where democratic institutions are under pressure, dynamic civic movements for justice and inclusion continue to build on the achievements of their predecessors, expanding the scope of what citizens can and should expect from democracy. The promise of democracy remains real and powerful. Not only defending it but broadening its reach is one of the great causes of our time….(More)”.

Social capital predicts corruption risk in towns


Paper by Johannes Wachs, Taha Yasseri, Balázs Lengyel and János Kertész: “Corruption is a social plague: gains accrue to small groups, while its costs are borne by everyone. Significant variation in its level between and within countries suggests a relationship between social structure and the prevalence of corruption, yet, large-scale empirical studies thereof have been missing due to lack of data. In this paper, we relate the structural characteristics of social capital of settlements with corruption in their local governments. Using datasets from Hungary, we quantify corruption risk by suppressed competition and lack of transparency in the settlement’s awarded public contracts. We characterize social capital using social network data from a popular online platform. Controlling for social, economic and political factors, we find that settlements with fragmented social networks, indicating an excess of bonding social capital has higher corruption risk, and settlements with more diverse external connectivity, suggesting a surplus of bridging social capital is less exposed to corruption. We interpret fragmentation as fostering in-group favouritism and conformity, which increase corruption, while diversity facilitates impartiality in public life and stifles corruption….(More)”.

Democracy vs. Disinformation


Ana Palacio at Project Syndicate: “These are difficult days for liberal democracy. But of all the threats that have arisen in recent years – populism, nationalism, illiberalism – one stands out as a key enabler of the rest: the proliferation and weaponization of disinformation.

The threat is not a new one. Governments, lobby groups, and other interests have long relied on disinformation as a tool of manipulation and control.

What is new is the ease with which disinformation can be produced and disseminated. Advances in technology allow for the increasingly seamless manipulation or fabrication of video and audio, while the pervasiveness of social media enables false information to be rapidly amplified among receptive audiences.

Beyond introducing falsehoods into public discourse, the spread of disinformation can undermine the possibility of discourse itself, by calling into question actual facts. This “truth decay” – apparent in the widespread rejection of experts and expertise – undermines the functioning of democratic systems, which depend on the electorate’s ability to make informed decisions about, say, climate policy or the prevention of communicable diseases.

The West has been slow to recognize the scale of this threat. It was only after the 2016 Brexit referendum and US presidential election that the power of disinformation to reshape politics began to attract attention. That recognition was reinforced in 2017, during the French presidential election and the illegal referendum on Catalan independence.

Now, systematic efforts to fight disinformation are underway. So far, the focus has been on tactical approaches, targeting the “supply side” of the problem: unmasking Russia-linked fake accounts, blocking disreputable sources, and adjusting algorithms to limit public exposure to false and misleading news. Europe has led the way in developing policy responses, such as soft guidelines for industry, national legislation, and strategic communications.

Such tactical actions – which can be implemented relatively easily and bring tangible results quickly – are a good start. But they are not nearly enough.

To some extent, Europe seems to recognize this. Early this month, the Atlantic Council organized #DisinfoWeek Europe, a series of strategic dialogues focused on the global challenge of disinformation. And more ambitious plans are already in the works, including French President Emmanuel Macron’s recently proposed European Agency for the Protection of Democracies, which would counter hostile manipulation campaigns.

But, as is so often the case in Europe, the gap between word and deed is vast, and it remains to be seen how all of this will be implemented and scaled up. In any case, even if such initiatives do get off the ground, they will not succeed unless they are accompanied by efforts that tackle the demand side of the problem: the factors that make liberal democratic societies today so susceptible to manipulation….(More)”.

Regulating disinformation with artificial intelligence


Paper for the European Parliamentary Research Service: “This study examines the consequences of the increasingly prevalent use of artificial intelligence (AI) disinformation initiatives upon freedom of expression, pluralism and the functioning of a democratic polity. The study examines the trade-offs in using automated technology to limit the spread of disinformation online. It presents options (from self-regulatory to legislative) to regulate automated content recognition (ACR) technologies in this context. Special attention is paid to the opportunities for the European Union as a whole to take the lead in setting the framework for designing these technologies in a way that enhances accountability and transparency and respects free speech. The present project reviews some of the key academic and policy ideas on technology and disinformation and highlights their relevance to European policy.

Chapter 1 introduces the background to the study and presents the definitions used. Chapter 2 scopes the policy boundaries of disinformation from economic, societal and technological perspectives, focusing on the media context, behavioural economics and technological regulation. Chapter 3 maps and evaluates existing regulatory and technological responses to disinformation. In Chapter 4, policy options are presented, paying particular attention to interactions between technological solutions, freedom of expression and media pluralism….(More)”.

China, India and the rise of the ‘civilisation state’


Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times: “The 19th-century popularised the idea of the “nation state”. The 21st could be the century of the “civilisation state”. A civilisation state is a country that claims to represent not just a historic territory or a particular language or ethnic-group, but a distinctive civilisation.

It is an idea that is gaining ground in states as diverse as China, India, Russia, Turkey and, even, the US. The notion of the civilisation state has distinctly illiberal implications. It implies that attempts to define universal human rights or common democratic standards are wrong-headed, since each civilisation needs political institutions that reflect its own unique culture. The idea of a civilisation state is also exclusive. Minority groups and migrants may never fit in because they are not part of the core civilisation.

One reason that the idea of the civilisation state is likely to gain wider currency is the rise of China. In speeches to foreign audiences, President Xi Jinping likes to stress the unique history and civilisation of China. This idea has been promoted by pro-government intellectuals, such as Zhang Weiwei of Fudan university. In an influential book, The China Wave: Rise of a Civilisational State, Mr Zhang argues that modern China has succeeded because it has turned its back on western political ideas — and instead pursued a model rooted in its own Confucian culture and exam-based meritocratic traditions. Mr Zhang was adapting an idea first elaborated by Martin Jacques, a western writer, in a bestselling book, When China Rules The World. “China’s history of being a nation state”, Mr Jacques argues, “dates back only 120-150 years: its civilisational history dates back thousands of years.” He believes that the distinct character of Chinese civilisation leads to social and political norms that are very different from those prevalent in the west, including “the idea that the state should be based on familial relations [and] a very different view of the relationship between the individual and society, with the latter regarded as much more important”. …

Civilisational views of the state are also gaining ground in Russia. Some of the ideologues around Vladimir Putin now embrace the idea that Russia represents a distinct Eurasian civilisation, which should never have sought to integrate with the west. In a recent article Vladislav Surkov, a close adviser to the Russian president, argued that his country’s “repeated fruitless efforts to become a part of western civilisation are finally over”. Instead, Russia should embrace its identity as “a civilisation that has absorbed both east and west” with a “hybrid mentality, intercontinental territory and bipolar history. It is charismatic, talented, beautiful and lonely. Just as a half-breed should be.” In a global system moulded by the west, it is unsurprising that some intellectuals in countries such as China, India or Russia should want to stress the distinctiveness of their own civilisations.

What is more surprising is that rightwing thinkers in the US are also retreating from the idea of “universal values” — in favour of emphasising the unique and allegedly endangered nature of western civilisation….(More)”.

How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny


Jon Askonas at The New Atlantis: “The rumors spread like wildfire: Muslims were secretly lacing a Sri Lankan village’s food with sterilization drugs. Soon, a video circulated that appeared to show a Muslim shopkeeper admitting to drugging his customers — he had misunderstood the question that was angrily put to him. Then all hell broke loose. Over a several-day span, dozens of mosques and Muslim-owned shops and homes were burned down across multiple towns. In one home, a young journalist was trapped, and perished.

Mob violence is an old phenomenon, but the tools encouraging it, in this case, were not. As the New York Times reported in April, the rumors were spread via Facebook, whose newsfeed algorithm prioritized high-engagement content, especially videos. “Designed to maximize user time on site,” as the Times article describes, the newsfeed algorithm “promotes whatever wins the most attention. Posts that tap into negative, primal emotions like anger or fear, studies have found, produce the highest engagement, and so proliferate.” On Facebook in Sri Lanka, posts with incendiary rumors had among the highest engagement rates, and so were among the most highly promoted content on the platform. Similar cases of mob violence have taken place in India, Myanmar, Mexico, and elsewhere, with misinformation spread mainly through Facebook and the messaging tool WhatsApp.

Follow The New AtlantisThis is in spite of Facebook’s decision in January 2018 to tweak its algorithm, apparently to prevent the kind of manipulation we saw in the 2016 U.S. election, when posts and election ads originating from Russia reportedly showed up in newsfeeds of up to 126 million American Facebook users. The company explained that the changes to its algorithm will mean that newsfeeds will be “showing more posts from friends and family and updates that spark conversation,” and “less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses.” But these changes, which Facebook had tested out in countries like Sri Lanka in the previous year, may actually have exacerbated the problem — which is that incendiary content, when posted by friends and family, is guaranteed to “spark conversation” and therefore to be prioritized in newsfeeds. This is because “misinformation is almost always more interesting than the truth,” as Mathew Ingram provocatively put it in the Columbia Journalism Review.

How did we get here, from Facebook’s mission to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”? Riot-inducing “fake news” and election meddling are obviously far from what its founders intended for the platform. Likewise, Google’s founders surely did not build their search engine with the intention of its being censored in China to suppress free speech, and yet, after years of refusing this demand from Chinese leadership, Google has recently relented rather than pull their search engine from China entirely. And YouTube’s creators surely did not intend their feature that promotes “trending” content to help clickbait conspiracy-theory videos go viral.

These outcomes — not merely unanticipated by the companies’ founders but outright opposed to their intentions — are not limited to social media. So far, Big Tech companies have presented issues of incitement, algorithmic radicalization, and “fake news” as merely bumps on the road of progress, glitches and bugs to be patched over. In fact, the problem goes deeper, to fundamental questions of human nature. Tools based on the premise that access to information will only enlighten us and social connectivity will only make us more humane have instead fanned conspiracy theories, information bubbles, and social fracture. A tech movement spurred by visions of libertarian empowerment and progressive uplift has instead fanned a global resurgence of populism and authoritarianism.

Despite the storm of criticism, Silicon Valley has still failed to recognize in these abuses a sharp rebuke of its sunny view of human nature. It remains naïvely blind to how its own aspirations for social engineering are on a spectrum with the tools’ “unintended” uses by authoritarian regimes and nefarious actors….(More)”.

Index: Trust in Institutions 2019


By Michelle Winowatan, Andrew J. Zahuranec, Andrew Young, Stefaan Verhulst

The Living Library Index – inspired by the Harper’s Index – provides important statistics and highlights global trends in governance innovation. This installment focuses on trust in institutions.

Please share any additional, illustrative statistics on open data, or other issues at the nexus of technology and governance, with us at info@thelivinglib.org

Global Trust in Public Institutions

Trust in Government

United States

  • Americans who say their democracy is working at least “somewhat well:” 58% – 2018
  • Number who believe sweeping changes to their government are needed: 61% – 2018
  • Percentage of Americans expressing faith in election system security: 45% – 2018
  • Percentage of Americans expressing an overarching trust in government: 40% – 2019
  • How Americans would rate the trustworthiness of Congress: 4.1 out of 10 – 2017
  • Number who have confidence elected officials act in the best interests of the public: 25% – 2018
  • Amount who trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always or most of the time”: 18% – 2017
  • Americans with trust and confidence in the federal government to handle domestic problems: 2 in 5 – 2018
    • International problems: 1 in 2 – 2018
  • US institution with highest amount of confidence to act in the best interests of the public: The Military (80%) – 2018
  • Most favorably viewed level of government: Local (67%) – 2018
  • Most favorably viewed federal agency: National Park Service (83% favorable) – 2018
  • Least favorable federal agency: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (47% unfavorable) – 2018

United Kingdom

  • Overall trust in government: 42% – 2019
    • Number who think the country is headed in the “wrong direction:” 7 in 10 – 2018
    • Those who have trust in politicians: 17% – 2018
    • Amount who feel unrepresented in politics: 61% – 2019
    • Amount who feel that their standard of living will get worse over the next year: Nearly 4 in 10 – 2019
  • Trust the national government handling of personal data:

European Union

Africa

Latin America

Other

Trust in Media

  • Percentage of people around the world who trust the media: 47% – 2019
    • In the United Kingdom: 37% – 2019
    • In the United States: 48% – 2019
    • In China: 76% – 2019
  • Rating of news trustworthiness in the United States: 4.5 out of 10 – 2017
  • Number of citizens who trust the press across the European Union: Almost 1 in 2 – 2019
  • France: 3.9 out of 10 – 2019
  • Germany: 4.8 out of 10 – 2019
  • Italy: 3.8 out of 10 – 2019
  • Slovenia: 3.9 out of 10 – 2019
  • Percentage of European Union citizens who trust the radio: 59% – 2017
    • Television: 51% – 2017
    • The internet: 34% – 2017
    • Online social networks: 20% – 2017
  • EU citizens who do not actively participate in political discussions on social networks because they don’t trust online social networks: 3 in 10 – 2018
  • Those who are confident that the average person in the United Kingdom can tell real news from ‘fake news’: 3 in 10 – 2018

Trust in Business

Sources

Artificial Intelligence and National Security


Report by Congressional Research Service: “Artificial intelligence (AI) is a rapidly growing field of technology with potentially significant implications for national security. As such, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and other nations are developing AI applications for a range of military functions. AI research is underway in the fields of intelligence collection and analysis, logistics, cyber operations, information operations, command and control, and in a variety of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles.

Already, AI has been incorporated into military operations in Iraq and Syria. Congressional action has the potential to shape the technology’s development further, with budgetary and legislative decisions influencing the growth of military applications as well as the pace of their adoption.

AI technologies present unique challenges for military integration, particularly because the bulk of AI development is happening in the commercial sector. Although AI is not unique in this regard, the defense acquisition process may need to be adapted for acquiring emerging technologies like AI.

In addition, many commercial AI applications must undergo significant modification prior to being functional for the military. A number of cultural issues also challenge AI acquisition, as some commercial AI companies are averse to partnering with DOD due to ethical concerns, and even within the department, there can be resistance to incorporating AI technology into existing weapons systems and processes.

Potential international rivals in the AI market are creating pressure for the United States to compete for innovative military AI applications. China is a leading competitor in this regard, releasing a plan in 2017 to capture the global lead in AI development by 2030. Currently, China is primarily focused on using AI to make faster and more well-informed decisions, as well as on developing a variety of autonomous military vehicles. Russia is also active in military AI development, with a primary focus on robotics. Although AI has the potential to impart a number of advantages in the military context, it may also introduce distinct challenges.

AI technology could, for example, facilitate autonomous operations, lead to more informed military decisionmaking, and increase the speed and scale of military action. However, it may also be unpredictable or vulnerable to unique forms of manipulation. As a result of these factors, analysts hold a broad range of opinions on how influential AI will be in future combat operations.

While a small number of analysts believe that the technology will have minimal impact, most believe that AI will have at least an evolutionary—if not revolutionary—effect….(More)”.

Open Data Politics: A Case Study on Estonia and Kazakhstan


Book by Maxat Kassen: “… offers a cross-national comparison of open data policies in Estonia and Kazakhstan. By analyzing a broad range of open data-driven projects and startups in both countries, it reveals the potential that open data phenomena hold with regard to promoting public sector innovations. The book addresses various political and socioeconomic contexts in these two transitional societies, and reviews the strategies and tactics adopted by policymakers and stakeholders to identify drivers of and obstacles to the implementation of open data innovations. Given its scope, the book will appeal to scholars, policymakers, e-government practitioners and open data entrepreneurs interested in implementing and evaluating open data-driven public sector projects….(More)”