The Progressive Post

Defending democracy in the digital world

Whole-of-society approaches against disinformation

managing director of Alliance4Europe, and a board member of the DISARM Foundation

How to mobilise all parts of society and foster cooperation to defend from disinformation threatening democracy? By applying experiences and tools from cybersecurity to information threats, we have a chance to foster cooperation, build resilience and eventually transform the online sphere.

The threat of disinformation to our democracies and way of life has been increasingly visible and hotly debated. In leaps and bounds, we have seen floods of so-called ‘fake news’ overwhelm our media ecosystems, and overtake reasonable decision-making. As the digital world and the tangible ‘real’ world merge, online noise has very serious consequences in the physical world.

The fact that new communication technologies bring about an upending of social order is not new – some hundreds of years ago, the printing press brought about a communication revolution, which arguably drove the Reformation and a wave of religious conflict. The use of broadcast and print media for manipulation in the second world war era led Stalin to originally coin the term desinformatsiya (disinformation). We have only seen a small section of the path these developments will take us, and the future is very much ours to shape. 

It is tempting to think of misinformation, wrongful information posted online, as just erroneous news, the product of careless use of the internet, or as merely a scientific or technological problem to solve. It is tempting to think that if only we could give people the facts, they would avoid the lies and errors. 

However, in the ongoing struggle between democracies and democrats on the one hand, and authoritarian regimes and movements on the other, information is being used as a weapon to manipulate, divide, degrade and undermine. What we see unfold around us are systematic, intentional and sophisticated influence operations intended to upend and undo democracy, and to promote extremist and authoritarian agendas. The use of bot armies, fake accounts, AI-generated content – these are some of the tactics that have made headlines. This has been part of a sophisticated and comprehensive playbook that has been replicated and refined around the world over the past decade.

In this constellation the attackers have an advantage: all they need to do is to poke holes, to destabilise, to disrupt – it is always easier to break things than to fix them. The defenders have a disadvantage, as they can easily be left behind, chasing after the latest disruption. It is only through coordination, cooperation, resilience and transformation that a democratic information space can really be defended. 

This is why having a common language around which to coordinate is crucial. Researchers, analysts, policymakers, communicators, campaigners, tech platforms, private companies – all of these actors need to establish a common understanding of both problems and solutions. Having a common understanding and a common view is the first step to taking effective, coordinated action.

Enter DISARM – Disinformation Analysis and Risk Management – an open-source common framework (or a ‘taxonomy’, for those who like big words) on disinformation tactics and behaviours, overseen by the DISARM Foundation. It is based on cybersecurity approaches, to give those who defend against information manipulation and interference (often foreign interference aka FIMI – Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference), a common understanding. This is part of an effort to create an overall common data model to defend against disinformation – to be able to build common databases of actors, behaviours, contents and impacts of disinformation. As an open-source effort, this is community-driven, aiming to take up input from a community of users across the space who collaborate using the system. This approach builds on the experience and infrastructure developed in the cybersecurity field. They have now been gradually adopted by EU institutions, and increasingly by governments and practitioners around the world. 

Once there is common understanding and collaboration, more resilient systems can be put in place so that defenders can get ahead, and set their own agenda, protecting free democratic debate and rights online. Once policymakers have commonly agreed on ways to size up the problem, they can more effectively apply the policy measures foreseen in the EU Digital Services Act.

A more resilient information space, which protects digital rights and freedom of expression, free from malicious interference, can enable democracy to develop. Eventually, the digital space could be transformed to become more humane – to move away from an attention and surveillance economy towards business models that add more value and well-being, from vitriol and hate online, towards more inclusion and human development. 

Alliance4Europe got started as a non-profit organisation, it was established to bring together whole-of-society action to defend and advance democracy in Europe. Alliance4Europe has supported these efforts to develop the systems that enable cooperation, to proactively build a more hopeful future for European democracy, and an effective playbook on how to get there.

Photo credits: shutterstock/CasimiroPT

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