Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It


Book by Richard Stengel: “Disinformation is as old as humanity. When Satan told Eve nothing would happen if she bit the apple, that was disinformation. But the rise of social media has made disinformation even more pervasive and pernicious in our current era. In a disturbing turn of events, governments are increasingly using disinformation to create their own false narratives, and democracies are proving not to be very good at fighting it.

During the final three years of the Obama administration, Richard Stengel, the former editor of Time and an Under Secretary of State, was on the front lines of this new global information war. At the time, he was the single person in government tasked with unpacking, disproving, and combating both ISIS’s messaging and Russian disinformation. Then, in 2016, as the presidential election unfolded, Stengel watched as Donald Trump used disinformation himself, weaponizing the grievances of Americans who felt left out by modernism. In fact, Stengel quickly came to see how all three players had used the same playbook: ISIS sought to make Islam great again; Putin tried to make Russia great again; and we all know about Trump.

In a narrative that is by turns dramatic and eye-opening, Information Wars walks readers through of this often frustrating battle. Stengel moves through Russia and Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and introduces characters from Putin to Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Mohamed bin Salman to show how disinformation is impacting our global society. He illustrates how ISIS terrorized the world using social media, and how the Russians launched a tsunami of disinformation around the annexation of Crimea – a scheme that became the model for their interference with the 2016 presidential election. An urgent book for our times, Information Wars stresses that we must find a way to combat this ever growing threat to democracy….(More)”.

The Narrow Corridor


Book by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson: “…In their new book, they build a new theory about liberty and how to achieve it, drawing a wealth of evidence from both current affairs and disparate threads of world history.  

Liberty is hardly the “natural” order of things. In most places and at most times, the strong have dominated the weak and human freedom has been quashed by force or by customs and norms. Either states have been too weak to protect individuals from these threats, or states have been too strong for people to protect themselves from despotism. Liberty emerges only when a delicate and precarious balance is struck between state and society.

There is a Western myth that political liberty is a durable construct, arrived at by a process of “enlightenment.” This static view is a fantasy, the authors argue. In reality, the corridor to liberty is narrow and stays open only via a fundamental and incessant struggle between state and society: The authors look to the American Civil Rights Movement, Europe’s early and recent history, the Zapotec civilization circa 500 BCE, and Lagos’s efforts to uproot corruption and institute government accountability to illustrate what it takes to get and stay in the corridor. But they also examine Chinese imperial history, colonialism in the Pacific, India’s caste system, Saudi Arabia’s suffocating cage of norms, and the “Paper Leviathan” of many Latin American and African nations to show how countries can drift away from it, and explain the feedback loops that make liberty harder to achieve. 

Today we are in the midst of a time of wrenching destabilization. We need liberty more than ever, and yet the corridor to liberty is becoming narrower and more treacherous. The danger on the horizon is not “just” the loss of our political freedom, however grim that is in itself; it is also the disintegration of the prosperity and safety that critically depend on liberty. The opposite of the corridor of liberty is the road to ruin….(More)”.

Rational Democracy: a critical analysis of digital democracy in the light of rational choice institutionalism


Paper by Ricardo Zapata Lopera: “Since its beginnings, digital technologies have increased the enthusiasm for the realisation of political utopias about a society capable of achieving self-organisation and decentralised governance. The vision was initially brought to concrete technological developments in mid-century with the surge of cybernetics and the attempt to automatise public processes for a more efficient State, taking its most practical form with the Cybersyn Project between 1971-73. Contemporary developments of governance technologies have learned and leveraged particularly from the internet, the free software movement and the increasing micro-processing capacity to come up with more efficient solutions for collective decision-making, preserving, in most cases, the same ethos of “algorithmic regulation”. This essay examines how rational choice institutionalism has framed the scope of digital democracy, and how recent supporting technologies like blockchain have made more evident the objective of creating new institutional arrangements to overcome market failures and increasing inequality, without questioning the utility-maximisation logic. This rational logic of governance could explain the paradoxical movements towards centralisation and power concentration experienced by some of these technologies.

Digital democracy will be understood as a heterogeneous field that explores how digital tools and technologies are used in the practice of democracy (Simon, Bass & Mulgan, 2017). Its understanding needs to go in hand however with the use of supporting technologies and practices that amplify the role of the people in the public decision-making process, either by decentralisation (of public goods) or aggregation (of opinions), including blockchain, data processing (open data and big data), open government, and recent developments in civic tech (Knight Foundation, 2013). It must be noted that the use of digital democracy as a category to describe the use of these technologies to support democratic processes remains contended and requires further debate.

Dahlberg (2011) makes a useful characterisation of four common positions in digital democracy, where the ‘liberal-consumer’ and the ‘deliberative’ positions dominate mainstream thinking and practice, while other alternative positions (‘counter publics’ and ‘autonomous Marxist’) exist, but mostly in experimental or specific contexts. The liberal-consumer position conceives a self-sufficient, rational-strategic individual who acts in a competitive-aggregative democracy by “aggregating, calculating, choosing, competing, expressing, fundraising, informing, petitioning, registering, transacting, transmitting and voting” (p. 865). The deliberative subject is an inter-subjectively rational individual acting in a deliberative consensual democracy “agreeing, arguing, deliberating, disagreeing, informing, meeting, opinion forming, publicising, and reflecting” (p. 865).

Practice has been more homogeneous adopting the ‘liberal-consumer’ and ‘deliberative’ positions. Examples of the former include local and national government e-democracy initiatives; media politics sites, especially the ones providing ‘public opinion’ polling and ‘have your say’ comment systems; ‘independent’ e-democracy projects like mysociety.org; and civil society practices like Amnesty International’s digital campaigns, and online petitioning through sites like Change.org or Avaaz.org (Dahlberg, 2011, p. 858). On the other side, examples of the deliberative position include online government consultation projects (e.g. Your Priorities app and DemocracyOS.eu platform), writing and commentary of online citizen journalism in media sites; “online discussion forums of political interest groups; and the vast array of informal online debate on e-mail lists, web discussion boards, chat channels, blogs, social networking sites, and wikis” (p. 859). Recent developments not only include a mixture of both positions, but a more dynamic online-offline experience….

To shed a light on the understanding of this situation, it might be important to consider how rational choice institutionalism (RCI) explains the inherent logic of digital democracy. Rational choice institutionalism is a theoretical approach of ‘bounded rationality’, that is, it supposes rational utility-maximising actors playing in contexts constrained by institutions. According to Hall and Taylor (1996), this approach assumes rational actors to be incapable of reaching social optimal situations due to insufficient institutional configurations. The actors play strategic interactions in a configured scenario that affects “the range and sequence of alternatives on the choice-agenda or [provides] information and enforcement mechanisms that reduce uncertainty about the corresponding behaviour of others and allows ‘gains from exchange’, thereby leading actors toward particular calculations and potentially better social outcomes” (p. 945). RCI focuses on the reduction of transaction costs and the solution of the ‘principal-agent problem’, where “principals can monitor and enforce compliance on their agents” (p. 943)….(More)”.

The Global Disinformation Order: 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation


Report by Philip Howard and Samantha Bradshaw: “…The report explores the tools, capacities, strategies and resources employed by global ‘cyber troops’, typically government agencies and political parties, to influence public opinion in 70 countries.

Key findings include:

  • Organized social media manipulation has more than doubled since 2017, with 70 countries using computational propaganda to manipulate public opinion.
  • In 45 democracies, politicians and political parties have used computational propaganda tools by amassing fake followers or spreading manipulated media to garner voter support.
  • In 26 authoritarian states, government entities have used computational propaganda as a tool of information control to suppress public opinion and press freedom, discredit criticism and oppositional voices, and drown out political dissent.
  • Foreign influence operations, primarily over Facebook and Twitter, have been attributed to cyber troop activities in seven countries: China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
  • China has now emerged as a major player in the global disinformation order, using social media platforms to target international audiences with disinformation.
  • 25 countries are working with private companies or strategic communications firms offering a computational propaganda as a service.
  • Facebook remains the platform of choice for social media manipulation, with evidence of formally organised campaigns taking place in 56 countries….

The report explores the tools and techniques of computational propaganda, including the use of fake accounts – bots, humans, cyborgs and hacked accounts – to spread disinformation. The report finds:

  • 87% of countries used human accounts
  • 80% of countries used bot accounts
  • 11% of countries used cyborg accounts
  • 7% of countries used hacked or stolen accounts…(More)”.

Accountability in the Age of the Artificial


2019 Solomon Lecture by Fiona McLeod: “Our aspiration for open and accountable government faces innumerable challenges, not least the natural reluctance of all governments to expose themselves to criticism and accept responsibility for failure.

Time and again, corporate and political goals take priority over just outcomes, and the human rights of individuals and communities are undervalued and ignored.

Numerous examples of bad behaviour shock us for a while, some even receiving the focused attention of high quality investigative journalism and Royal Commissions, but we are left unsatisfied, cynical and disengaged, more jaded than before, accepting the inevitability of existential threats, the comfort of algorithmic news feeds and vague promises to ‘drain the swamp’.

In this context, are big data and artificial intelligence the enemies of the people, the ultimate tools of the oligarch, or the vital tools needed to eliminate bias, improve scrutiny and just outcomes for the visionary?  Is there a future in which humanity evolves alongside an enhanced hive-mind in time to avert global catastrophe and create a new vision for humanity?…(More)”

Weaponized Interdependence: How Global Economic Networks Shape State Coercion


Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman in International Security: “Liberals claim that globalization has led to fragmentation and decentralized networks of power relations. This does not explain how states increasingly “weaponize interdependence” by leveraging global networks of informational and financial exchange for strategic advantage. The theoretical literature on network topography shows how standard models predict that many networks grow asymmetrically so that some nodes are far more connected than others. This model nicely describes several key global economic networks, centering on the United States and a few other states. Highly asymmetric networks allow states with (1) effective jurisdiction over the central economic nodes and (2) appropriate domestic institutions and norms to weaponize these structural advantages for coercive ends. In particular, two mechanisms can be identified. First, states can employ the “panopticon effect” to gather strategically valuable information. Second, they can employ the “chokepoint effect” to deny network access to adversaries. Tests of the plausibility of these arguments across two extended case studies that provide variation both in the extent of U.S. jurisdiction and in the presence of domestic institutions—the SWIFT financial messaging system and the internet—confirm the framework’s expectations. A better understanding of the policy implications of the use and potential overuse of these tools, as well as the response strategies of targeted states, will recast scholarly debates on the relationship between economic globalization and state coercion….(More)”

Misinformation Has Created a New World Disorder


Claire Wardle at Scientific American: “…Online misinformation has been around since the mid-1990s. But in 2016 several events made it broadly clear that darker forces had emerged: automation, microtargeting and coordination were fueling information campaigns designed to manipulate public opinion at scale. Journalists in the Philippines started raising flags as Rodrigo Duterte rose to power, buoyed by intensive Facebook activity. This was followed by unexpected results in the Brexit referendum in June and then the U.S. presidential election in November—all of which sparked researchers to systematically investigate the ways in which information was being used as a weapon.

During the past three years the discussion around the causes of our polluted information ecosystem has focused almost entirely on actions taken (or not taken) by the technology companies. But this fixation is too simplistic. A complex web of societal shifts is making people more susceptible to misinformation and conspiracy. Trust in institutions is falling because of political and economic upheaval, most notably through ever widening income inequality. The effects of climate change are becoming more pronounced. Global migration trends spark concern that communities will change irrevocably. The rise of automation makes people fear for their jobs and their privacy.

Bad actors who want to deepen existing tensions understand these societal trends, designing content that they hope will so anger or excite targeted users that the audience will become the messenger. The goal is that users will use their own social capital to reinforce and give credibility to that original message.

Most of this content is designed not to persuade people in any particular direction but to cause confusion, to overwhelm and to undermine trust in democratic institutions from the electoral system to journalism. And although much is being made about preparing the U.S. electorate for the 2020 election, misleading and conspiratorial content did not begin with the 2016 presidential race, and it will not end after this one. As tools designed to manipulate and amplify content become cheaper and more accessible, it will be even easier to weaponize users as unwitting agents of disinformation….(More)”.

Credit: Jen Christiansen; Source: Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policymaking, by Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan. Council of Europe, October 2017

Politics, Bureaucracy and Successful Governance


Inaugural lecture by K.J. Meier: “One of the major questions, perhaps the major question, in the field of public administration is how to reconcile the need for bureaucracy with the democratic process. Bureaucracies after all are not seen as democratic institutions and operate based on hierarchy and expertise rather than popular will (see Mosher 1968). I take a distinctly minority view in the field, seeing bureaucracy not so much as a threat to democracy in existing mature democracies but as a necessary precondition for the existence of democracy in modern society (Meier 1997).

Democracy is a system of governance with high transactions costs that seeks democratic ideals of representation, equity, and fairness with only modest, if any, concern for efficiency. Effective bureaucracies are the institutions that produce the outcomes that build public support for democracy and in a sense generate the surplus that allows democratic processes to survive and flourish. Although bureaucracies may have none of the trappings of democracy internally, their role in contributing to democratic governance means that they should also be considered democratic institutions. Scholars, politicians, and citizens need to be concerned about preserving and protecting bureaucracy just as they seek to preserve and protect our official institutions of democracy.

Within the general theme of bureaucracy and democracy, this lecture will address two major concerns – (1) the failure of politics which severs the crucial link between voters and elected officials and poses major challenges to bureaucrats seeking to administer effective programs, and (2) the subsequent need for bureaucracy to also become an institution that represents the public. Within this concern about bureaucratic representation, the lecture will address how bureaucracies can assess the needs of citizens, and more narrowly how representative bureaucracy can be and is instrumental to the bureaucracy, and finally the limits of symbolic representation within bureaucracies….(More)”.

The Internet Freedom League: How to Push Back Against the Authoritarian Assault on the Web


Essay by Richard A. Clarke And Rob Knake in Foreign Affairs: “The early days of the Internet inspired a lofty dream: authoritarian states, faced with the prospect of either connecting to a new system of global communication or being left out of it, would choose to connect. According to this line of utopian thinking, once those countries connected, the flow of new information and ideas from the outside world would inexorably pull them toward economic openness and political liberalization. In reality, something quite different has happened. Instead of spreading democratic values and liberal ideals, the Internet has become the backbone of authoritarian surveillance states all over the world. Regimes in China, Russia, and elsewhere have used the Internet’s infrastructure to build their own national networks. At the same time, they have installed technical and legal barriers to prevent their citizens from reaching the wider Internet and to limit Western companies from entering their digital markets. 

But despite handwringing in Washington and Brussels about authoritarian schemes to split the Internet, the last thing Beijing and Moscow want is to find themselves relegated to their own networks and cut off from the global Internet. After all, they need access to the Internet to steal intellectual property, spread propaganda, interfere with elections in other countries, and threaten critical infrastructure in rival countries. China and Russia would ideally like to re-create the Internet in their own images and force the world to play by their repressive rules. But they haven’t been able to do that—so instead they have ramped up their efforts to tightly control outside access to their markets, limit their citizens’ ability to reach the wider Internet, and exploit the vulnerability that comes with the digital freedom and openness enjoyed in the West.

The United States and its allies and partners should stop worrying about the risk of authoritarians splitting the Internet. Instead, they should split it themselves, by creating a digital bloc within which data, services, and products can flow freely…(More)”.

Social Media and Polarization


Paper by Arthur Campbell, C. Matthew Leister and Yves Zenou: “Because of its impacts on democracy, there is an important debate on whether the recent trends towards greater use of social media increases or decreases (political) polarization. One challenge for understanding this issue is how social media affects the equilibrium prevalence of different types of media content. We address this issue by developing a model of a social media network where there are two types of news content: mass-market (mainstream news) and niche-market (biased or more “extreme” news) and two different types of individuals who have a preference for recommending one or other type of content. We find that social media will amplify the prevalence of mass-market content and may result in it being the only type of content consumed. Further, we find that greater connectivity and homophily in the social media network will concurrently increase the prevalence of the niche market content and polarization. We then study an extension where there are two lobbying agents that can and wish to influence the prevalence of each type of content. We find that the lobbying agent in favor of the niche content will invest more in lobbying activities. We also show that lobbying activity will tend to increase polarization, and that this effect is greatest in settings where polarization would be small absent of lobbying activity. Finally, we allow individuals to choose the degree of homophily amongst their connections and demonstrate that niche-market individuals exhibit greater homophily than the mass-market ones, and contribute more to polarization….(More)”.