Published by The Lawfare Institute
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In partnership with the Stanford Internet Observatory, Lawfare is publishing a series assessing the threat of foreign influence operations targeting the United States. Contributors debate whether the threat of such operations is overblown, voicing a range of views on the issue. For more information on the series, click here.
The danger posed by foreign-backed influence operations is real, particularly to the open Western democracies most susceptible to these attacks. Such operations are sometimes sensationalized and overhyped by politicians and others to distract and confuse the public for their own political ends—but the threat persists and must be taken seriously.
Counterintuitively, the success of such operations should not be conflated with the full seriousness of their effects. To be effective, foreign operations don’t have to be successful in whatever overt goal they may have—they simply have to exist. As with terrorism, the bomb that fails to detonate still creates fear. It seems that every couple of weeks, another set of foreign-run social media accounts is identified and shut down or another attempt to hack a campaign is thwarted—and while stopping such activity is necessary and important, the foreign operators can find success in the doubt and distrust that their efforts created.
Put simply, much of the danger posed by ongoing foreign influence operations is already baked into the reality of American political life, and the damage is persistent. On social media, it is now an all-too-common ad hominem attack to accuse users one disagrees with of being “Russian trolls.” Social media users need not engage with ideas that create uncomfortable cognitive dissonance; the account sharing that idea likely isn’t even real, so why bother? Likewise, it becomes simple to dismiss news stories that challenge preconceived worldviews if such facts can easily be written off as “Chinese propaganda.”
The mere existence of foreign-backed influence operations encourages ideological entrenchment and fuels the creation of separate, partisan realities. There is a serious danger here. Progress and compromise within democracies are made more difficult, if not impossible, without shared facts. Information operations, even when curtailed, may cause people to question those facts and doubt their perceived reality, and foreign actors know this.
For the moment, it seems there is little reason to expect these campaigns to stop, and so societies must guard against them. Influence operations are sometimes called a form of political warfare; if so, they represent asymmetrical warfare whose tactics favor autocracies over democratic nations. Modern democracies have significant infrastructure to allow the average person to have their voice heard—open press, uncensored social media, and stronger rights to free speech and privacy. These structures, essential to democratic values, can be utilized by foreign and inauthentic voices that are part of information campaigns. Autocracies lack the same free and open structures of communication and so have an advantage; they can use tactics to suppress the spread of information that democracies cannot.
The asymmetry of this type of political warfare is also illustrated by the price tag. Influence operations are cheap. To execute its campaign around the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, the Russian Internet Research Agency “troll farm” had a $1.25 million monthly budget. Contrast that price tag to the cost of a single Northrop Grumman B-21 bomber, said to have a unit price of more than $550 million. Considering that Russia has a gross domestic product smaller than that of some U.S. states, it’s clear which battle space the Kremlin will likely choose to compete in—and the same is likely true for other nations. Even if social influence campaigns are more guerilla marketing than warfare, the David-vs.-Goliath metaphor still fits. Influence operations promise plenty of potential bang for the buck and can offer smaller nations the hope of outsized importance.
Likewise, the political and operational costs associated with being caught perpetrating an influence campaign seem acceptable to foreign actors. Suspended social media accounts are easily replaced. Indicted operators will never see trial—consider, for example, the ill-fated case brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller against Internet Research Agency-linked organizations. Words between national leaders are kept largely cordial. The benefits may not always be clear, but certainly the expenses are low.
As with information operations, open and democratic states are also particularly susceptible to terrorism—another asymmetrical tactic. Both terrorism and information operations are low-cost, high-profile approaches. They both also share what is often likely a low probability of significant direct geopolitical effect. And in the same way that it would be foolish for societies to let down their guards against terrorism, democracies have to remain vigilant when it comes to defending against foreign information operations, working to build resilient networks and aware citizens.
It is true the threat of foreign influence has at times been exaggerated, but paying too much attention to the problem is better than too little. In 2016, the Internet Research Agency paid for Facebook ads with rubles; those days are hopefully in the past. The 2016 hack-and-leak of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s emails is a reminder that it takes only one success for a single foreign influence campaign to have potentially deep effects. Even without those obvious successes, though, information operations have lasting power over how people perceive the world. Democracies must accept the presence of foreign information operations—exaggerated or not—as part of the fabric of their reality.