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Farrell & Schneier: Information Attacks on Democracies—Noted

I find this incredibly difficult to grasp and retain, but I do think it is one of the most important arguments of this decade: Henry Farrell & Bruce Schneier: Information Attacks on Democracies https://www.lawfareblog.com/information-attacks-democracies: 'Democracy is an information system. That's the starting place of our new paper: “Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy.” In it, we look at democracy through the lens of information security, trying to understand the current waves of Internet disinformation attacks. Specifically, we wanted to explain why the same disinformation campaigns that act as a stabilizing influence in Russia are destabilizing in the United States. The answer revolves around the different ways autocracies and democracies work as information systems...

...We start by differentiating between two types of knowledge that societies use in their political systems. The first is common political knowledge, which is the body of information that people in a society broadly agree on. People agree on who the rulers are and what their claim to legitimacy is. People agree broadly on how their government works, even if they don't like it. In a democracy, people agree about how elections work: how districts are created and defined, how candidates are chosen, and that their votes count—even if only roughly and imperfectly.

We contrast this with a very different form of knowledge that we call contested political knowledge, which is, broadly, things that people in society disagree about. Examples are easy to bring to mind: how much of a role the government should play in the economy, what the tax rules should be, what sorts of regulations are beneficial and what sorts are harmful, and so on.

This seems basic, but it gets interesting when we contrast both of these forms of knowledge across autocracies and democracies... [which] have incompatible needs for common and contested political knowledge.... Democracies draw upon the disagreements within their population to solve problems... groups vie for political influence by persuading voters. There is also long-term uncertainty about who will be in charge and able to set policy goals. Ideally, this is the mechanism through which a polity can harness the diversity of perspectives of its members to better solve complex policy problems.... In order for this to work, there needs to be common knowledge both of how government functions and how political leaders are chosen. There also needs to be common knowledge of who the political actors are, what they and their parties stand for, and how they clash.... Furthermore, this knowledge is decentralized... since ordinary citizens play a significant role....

Contrast this with an autocracy. There, common political knowledge about who is in charge over the long term and what their policy goals are is a basic condition of stability. Autocracies... strive to maintain a monopoly on other forms of common political knowledge... suppress common political knowledge about potential groupings... popular support... coalitions.... If no one really knows which other political parties might form, what they might stand for, and what support they might get, that itself is a significant barrier to those parties ever forming.

This difference has important consequences for security. Authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to information attacks that challenge their monopoly on common political knowledge... vulnerable to attacks that turn contested political knowledge—uncertainty about potential adversaries of the ruling regime, their popular levels of support and their ability to form coalitions—into common political knowledge. As such, they are vulnerable to tools that allow people to communicate and organize... provide citizens with outside information and perspectives....

Democracies, in contrast, are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge... the results of an election... whether a census process is accurate... what the other perspectives in society are, who is real and who is not real....

This is what seems to be Russia’s aims in their information campaigns against the U.S.: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together. This is also the situation that writers like Adrien Chen and Peter Pomerantsev describe in today’s Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair.

This difference explains how the same policy measure can increase the stability of one form of regime and decrease the stability of the other.... Open information flows have benefited democracies while at the same time threatening autocracies. In our language, they transform regime-supporting contested political knowledge into regime-undermining common political knowledge....

Other uses of the same information flows undermining democracies by turning regime-supporting common political knowledge into regime-undermining contested political knowledge....

The same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society....

We need to treat attacks on common political knowledge by insiders as being just as threatening as the same attacks by foreigners.

There’s a lot more in the paper....

.#noted #2020-06-21

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