If the most powerful and richest democracy in the world can have its electoral process derailed through mass disinformation, electronic break-ins and doxing, then what awaits the elections next year in Germany, France and the Netherlands, where genuine extremist parties are rapidly gaining popularity?
The German domestic and foreign intelligence agencies have already announced that the same groups that hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman have successfully breached the German Parliament and the accounts of political parties and politicians. German elections take place in the fall of 2017; officials already report an upsurge in fake news.
French presidential and parliamentary elections are slated for April and June of 2017. In the Netherlands, where elections are just around the corner, Russian disinformation already played a strong role passing the referendum on the decision not to ratify the European Union association agreement with Ukraine. The heads of intelligence in Sweden and the U.K. have both warned in recent weeks about Russian meddling in the two countries’ domestic politics. In Italy, with or without Russian help, fake news played a significant role defeating Matteo Renzi’s reform referendum, leading to the prime minister’s resignation two weeks ago.
The use of digital technology in politics has a relatively short history, although deception in warfare – and influencing a country’s election outcome is warfare – goes back to the Trojan Horse of Ancient Greece. Yet the scale of deception and use of digital technology we saw in the U.S. elections is much newer.
Digital warfare, in the Clausewitz definition as “the continuation of policy by other means,” reached Western public consciousness via my own country, Estonia, in 2007 when our governmental, banking and news media servers were hit with “distributed denial-of-service attacks,” which is when hackers overload servers until they shut down. Such attacks had been used previously but mainly for extortion of net-based businesses. This was likely the first time a nation-state had been targeted for political objectives ― in our case, as punishment for moving a Soviet statue unloved by the populace. The next year, in the Russian war against Georgia in 2008, cyberattacks were coordinated with military attacks ― a new development in hybrid warfare.
Kompramat, the Russian term for publishing (real or fake) compromising materials on opponents; hacking, breaking into and stealing data; doxing, combining the two to publish hacked documents to embarrass opponents; and fake news, an old propaganda trick ― all of these have been combined in the past year as a pincer movement on democratic elections. Hacked private mail appears in social and later mainstream media, after which fake news about the content takes off. Buzzfeed reported that in the last three months leading up to the U.S. election, fake news stories were shared on Facebook 8.7 million times, surpassing mainstream news by 1.4 million shares. The Pew Center meanwhile found that 62 percent of Americans get their news on social media.
Democracies are in uncharted territory. Never before has private information been as vulnerable to hacking, never has it been so common to distribute it publicly and never in the past 75 years has the public been as receptive to fake news. One outcome was a major disruption of the electoral process. Yet false stories can lead to genuine tragedy as well: after the election, a gunman with an AR-15 machine gun attacked a Washington pizza restaurant, his anger fueled by a fake story about Hillary Clinton running a child abuse ring there.
The conundrum that Europe will face in the coming year is whether or not to use illiberal methods to safeguard the liberal state. Facebook has announced a system to flag fake news; for some, however, this may not be enough. In Germany, a country that for obvious reasons is far more attuned than most to the dangers of demagogy, populism and nationalism, lawmakers have already proposed taking legal measures against fake news. When populist, nationalist fake news threatens the liberal democratic center, other Europeans may follow suit.
Democracies stand on several key pillars: Free and fair elections, human rights, the rule of law and a free untrammeled media. Until 2016, an open media was seen as a resilient democratic pillar that supported the others. Yet, because of cyberattacks and fake news, we can already imagine the problem all democratic societies will face in future elections: how to limit lies when they threaten democracy?
Author: Toomas Hendrik Ilves