Michael Den Tandt is the managing editor at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a former Globe and Mail writer and a former adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
As the first anniversary of Russia’s effort to absorb or destroy Ukraine approaches, with Putinist kleptocrats framing their war as an apocalyptic showdown with the West, it seems important to take stock of democracy itself. After all, it’s the moral fight – the information (or disinformation) conflict – that propels events on the ground.
Simply put, democracy is losing. The reason: Western governments, led by the United States, have not come to terms with the reality that liberal and free societies worldwide are under attack from within – using the very tools developed by their brightest innovators to express that freedom.
Digitization and the world wide web, those promethean sparks of the late 20th century, are the principal vehicles for populist disruption. Yet even as Europe and the U.S. ponderously turn, like a pair of moribund wildebeest facing a pack of jackals, to impose governance on the 30-year-old internet, Web3 and artificial intelligence are set to whisk deliverance away. How can regulators, already neutered by transnational data flows, cope with a digital universe in which fake video and audio are indistinguishable from real clips, while being infinitely scalable and producible on a laptop?
“On the internet,” the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen said in a prescient jeremiad to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in 2019, “everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.”
The implications for liberty are grim, and odder yet is the torpid response. It’s as though someone has slipped a sedative in the water supply, as democracy’s adversaries rack up victory after victory in the information space. Those successes are already causing enormous harm.
In April, 2021, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the foreign affairs department of the European Union, issued a report called Short Assessment of Narratives and Disinformation Around the COVID-19 Pandemic. The report, produced by the EEAS unit charged with countering disinformation, found that from December, 2020, through April, 2021 – with much of the world in lockdown and vaccines just beginning to emerge – Russian and Chinese information operations were in high gear.
Even as the two autocracies undertook an international campaign to promote their own COVID-19 vaccines – Sputnik V and Sinovac, respectively – they sought to “undermine trust in Western-made vaccines, EU institutions and Western/European vaccination strategies,” the EEAS report found. “Both Russia and China are using state-controlled media, networks of proxy media outlets and social media, including official diplomatic social media accounts, to achieve these goals.”
Further, it highlighted the ties between the far-right factions of the Russian Orthodox Christian Church, and far-right Christian Americans. In a 2019 paper for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, Laura Rosenberger and Thomas Morley explored how Russian links to global populist movements extend into France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. “Russian military strategists see cyberwarfare not as a distinct, separate form of military operation but rather one that is integrated into other means of asymmetric warfare, such as disinformation,” they wrote.
This isn’t to say that every keyboard warrior who shares an anti-vaccine meme is a Russian agent. But it is to say that authoritarian regimes have a clear interest in seeing that meme shared – just as Vladimir Putin’s regime had a clear interest in seeing Donald Trump become leader of the free world in 2016.
The West’s own innovative wizardry has been weaponized against us. Web-fuelled populism, abetted by authoritarian states, will continue to seek to undermine expertise, order and the law. Though the movement today revolves around demands for the freedom to reject science, it effortlessly morphs into a rant against all institutions, and then into pure, atavistic rage. It is both reactionary and revolutionary. It is propelled in the hothouse of social media, which could become even less technologically amenable to governance than it has been.
What can be done? Reforming Section 230 to make platforms accountable for what they publish would be important. But that isn’t feasible in a gridlocked Congress. The emerging patchwork quilt of legislated governance, with Europe’s Digital Services Act leading the way, may help. Education, particularly around media literacy, can certainly help. But only a fabulist would consider the situation anything but dire. As long as facts are indistinguishable from lies, open and free democracies are living on borrowed time.