The Most Powerful Weapon to use Against Democracies
By Cole Herring
In the year 2000 around one tenth of the world’s population had internet access, and global internet traffic was 2.5 million gigabytes of data per day. By 2025 over seventy-five percent of the world will have access and global internet traffic will be over 9.1 billion gigabytes of data per day. Currently 93 percent of people that are connected to the internet use social media. Facebook, a predominate social media platform, can reach over half of the adults in the world between the ages of 18 to 34. The surge in global connectivity has distributed influence in international politics to social groups that span multiple countries. Recent advances in artificial intelligence have given state’s an unprecedented power to control and influence messaging domestically and abroad. China and Russia challenge the existing world order through traditional means that have existed for thousands of years, such as using military power, creating parallel institutions, and increasing economic ties through infrastructure projects. They also challenge the world order through means that were unfathomable just 20 years ago by leveraging artificial intelligence and global connectivity to conduct influence campaigns against democracies.
China and Russia challenge the existing world order by using military power, creating parallel institutions, and increasing economic ties through infrastructure projects. To support all of these means they use influence campaigns that leverage global connectivity, social media, and AI to change accepted behaviours and norms. Rapid technology developments in realistic image generation have outpaced general knowledge, which increases the effect of misinformation and is a disadvantage to democracies because of authoritarian regimes’ ability to censor content domestically.
The battles become changing the accepted behaviours and norms of other states into norms that are in one’s own interests. An example is the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the recognition of Taiwan. The PRC continually stives to change other state’s recognition and relations, both official and unofficial, with Taiwan., If one accepts that other states should not interfere in domestic issues, then the PRC must ensure the accepted international norm is that Taiwan is part of China. Sovereignty is the basis of the PRC’s argument regarding Taiwan and China’s 2019 national defence strategy states that Taiwan is a domestic issue under the One China Policy, and other states should not interfere with domestic issues.
Before exploring how major powers like China and Russia challenge the existing world order, it is appropriate to consider what the existing world order is. According to the theory of constructivism a world order is a set of shared behaviours and norms conducted by states. The behaviours and norms are established through social interaction to which international organizations and alliances are often the conduit. Dr. Lawrence Finkelstein served in the UN secretariat from 1946 to 1949 and had a career in international affairs and academia. He highlighted the ambiguity of the world order by saying “global governances appears to be virtually anything.” Under this construct, shaping the accepted beliefs and norms through influence campaigns becomes a powerful lever.
Major powers like Russia and China argue that the existing world order favours European countries and specifically the United States of America. Since the United States of America was an undisputed and indispensable leader, it was able to shape an order out of its own interests and abuse its power. The leaders of China and Russia both want their nations to be national powers and view the current world order as being western dominated and holding back their progress. In 1999 the leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, said “Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest.” When the leader of China, Ji Xing Ping, took office he said “The greatest Chinese Dream is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and in subsequent speeches he called for a stable international order in which China’s national rejuvenation could be achieved, a military capable of fighting and winning wars, and demonstrating the superior system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
While China is more insidious and traditionally uses soft power, Russia has relied more on hard military power. However, recent rhetoric suggests that China will increasingly rely on hard power. Although their approaches vary, China and Russia use military, diplomatic, and economic means to challenge the existing world order. When Russia invaded Ukraine, it used its military power to challenge international law established by the United Nations. China’s one belt road initiative seeks to increase economic interdependence and make China the economic centre of the world. As part of the one belt one road initiative, China has also used investments and military aid to gain port access for its navy and army, known as the string of pearls that encircles India. China and Russia also build parallel organizations, for example Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organizations and China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization parallels NATO. China has also created Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, an alternative to the World Bank. To accomplish these means both authoritarian regimes use influence campaigns, which are arguably becoming their most powerful weapon against democracies.
Globalization has caused the line between domestic and international issues to become difficult to define. An example is Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (IUUF). While the PRC views the ability to feed its population as a domestic issue, the methods it uses have international implications. To feed its population the PRC uses around 800,000 fishing boats, which is half of the world’s fishers. The boats fish by trawling, which uses nets that devastate the ocean floor and frequently fish in other countries exclusive economic zones. Every year, the PRC sends 350-600 deep water finish vessels to fish off the Galapagos islands, and account of 99% of the fishing conducted there. Despite the environmental destruction and constant incursions on other countries economic exclusive zones, the PRC continues the practice and is the largest offender in IUUF. With the aid of artificial intelligence systems that can replicate media throughout multiple social media platforms, the PRC can censor data domestically and influence it abroad to suppress information about the fishing fleets.
State actors weaponization and use of artificial intelligence in influence campaigns present a significant challenge. While the use of state propaganda is not a new concept, the scope and scale that it can be conducted is unpresented. Misinformation is “the purposeful distribution of fake, misleading, fabricated, or manipulated content.” In the past the distribution of misinformation or propaganda across borders involved the costly process of opening a printing press, news outlets, or manually distributing content in the form of pamphlets. The ability to spread content in mass to populations was not tenable until recently. In a democratic system the influence on people at scale will ultimately influence policy makers and international interest. This is product of democracy that major state powers seek to exploit. By influencing masses at scale, they can change the perception of norms and indirectly influence heads of state through the people. The pace of growth in AI has outpaced education on misinformation, especially in the young democracies that often become a battleground for influence.
In 2019, a neural network created by Nvidia could produce images of human faces that are indistinguishable from photographs. In 2021, google released Imagen, a text to image model with unprecedented photorealism. Photorealism refers to an image that appears to have been taken by a human with a camera. A user can enter text and the model will generate a realistic image, in seconds, to the user. One example is “a cute corgi lives in a house made out of sushi.” The image generated combines all the aspects in the text to create a realistic image, one that is so realistic humans cannot distinguish a computer-generated image with a photograph taken by a human with a camera. What previously would have taken hours of labour using photoshop software can be accomplished in seconds. When this model is combined with a traditional algorithm to input key words and automate the process of posting the content on social media it gives the users the ability to flood an information environment with fake content.
Major powers like China and Russia have already shown that they are capable and willing to use technology to fuel their propaganda, disinformation, and public opinion campaigns. In 2020 Twitter deleted 32,000 accounts linked to state sponsored propaganda from China, Russia, and Turkey. The power and influence appears to be acknowledged by all governments, with recent claims in 2022 that pro-west social media networks were discovered distributing propaganda. Using AI models that can produce photorealistic images and bot networks state powers can create and distribute propaganda and disinformation campaigns throughout the world in a cheap and efficient manner. The developing countries where the understanding of AI is lower will likely be easier to influence.
Compounding the power of using AI to influence perceptions to change norms and behaviour is the ability to target specific populations and beliefs on social media. The marketing and advertising business have led to the creation of powerful tools that can show advertisements based on a person’s likes and interests. The same tools can be used to target a population with specific beliefs for a desired effect. A major state power could target a country that has traditionally been neutral on the recognition of Taiwan. They could then rapidly create content targeting people that believe in the one China policy, and those that support Taiwanese independence. The social influence campaign would seek to reinforce the beliefs of those that support it while discrediting those that oppose it.
China’s great firewall has made it more resilient to influence campaigns because of its extensive censorship. The ability to censor the internet presents a major advantage for authoritarian regimes against democracies because they can simultaneously control a domestic narrative while influencing a global narrative. A small and mundane example is with the book Bend, not Break by Ping Fu. A negative review campaign was launched from China to reduce the popularity of the book and discredit the author. The negative review campaign was aimed to reduce the book’s popularity in foreign markets, yet there was not a mechanism to promote the book within China because it was simply banned.
Major state actors also use influence campaigns with the intended effect of dismantling and discrediting alliances or states from within. The United States select committee on intelligence investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election. The committee found numerous cases, outside the scope of the election, where Russian state sponsored actors in Russia orchestrated divisive protests at the same location as counter protests in the United States of America. They also spread disinformation and encouraged the use of violence to both parties.
The influence campaign conducted by Russia against the United States of America in 2016 included Russian agent’s use of social media to organize protests in the United States from Russia, messaging people to encourage violent participation, and financially reimbursing members that would participate if they fit the mould of being extreme. In the example from 2016, state sponsored Russian activity specifically targeted the Black Lives Matter movement to create negative and emotional reactions. The activities explicitly sought to exploit and exasperate a racial divide and targeted both left and right wing parties.
The campaign was especially effective because it created content based on users known likes and interests. A book written by Estonian academics and published in 2021 describes Russia’s information warfare doctrine and strategy, and it notes that Russian information campaigns “are targeted at particular audiences in a considerably narrowed-down manner and with unprecedented precision.” Global connectivity, especially in social media, is what makes an unprecedented level of precision possible.
Another example that highlights the use of information campaigns in conjunction with traditional levers of power is the Russian campaign to preserve their influence in energy. In 2017, the US Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology wrote to US Department of the Treasury stating that “U.S. presidential candidates, European officials, and the U.S. intelligence community have all publicly noted that Russia and its government corporations are funding a covert anti-fracking campaign to suppress the widespread adoption of fracking in Europe and the U.S.—all in an effort to safeguard the influence of the Russian oil and gas sector.” Russia was providing funding and influencing environmental groups to counter fracking in the United States, which Russian policy makers saw as threat to their economy due to Russia’s reliance on exporting energy.
Russia influence campaigns have made attempts to cause divides with the EU by manipulating political groups. Several examples of Russian disinformation can be found in Poland, where Russian actors targeted the local population. In 2020 during a rotation of US troops as part of a NATO battalion, the slogan “No US troops in Poland!” was posted on a mayor’s official website, along with encouragement to march in protest. Russian sponsored news agencies and unattributed social media networks disseminated the information about the movement. By the time the mayor could declare they had been hacked two days had passed, and the story had already been propagated. Another example used the same technique of combining a cyber hack with immediate news stories that are spread through social media. In this example a fake letter with the heading “A Polish General Calls on Polish Soldiers to Fight the US Occupation,” was circulated. Both were aimed to divide the local population in Poland against the US presence, in an attempt to weaken NATO. Following the events, a spokesman for the Polish Prime Minster said Russia was using methods to “break the security measures and hijack social media accounts or websites in Poland and use such infrastructure to sow disinformation.”
There are several implications from the challenges on the existing world order. A study from the Rand Corporation on Russian influence campaigns found that social media education could prove to be an effective counter and recommended creating a counter-disinformation strategy with a commitment to the freedom of speech. Providing education to people on how to analyse information critically and the capabilities of AI are an enormous challenge when compared to the low cost of an automated disinformation campaign. Another implication is an increase in instability from the decoupling of economies. For example, while China and the US both benefit from their large economic trade and dependency, they are beginning to go through a technological decoupling. NATO allies reducing their dependence on Russian gas also created a level of instability that impacted the civilians in all the countries involved with the decoupling.
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