Pandemic Propaganda and the Global Democracy Crisis
With a global toll of over four-and-a-half million confirmed cases and over 300,000 deaths and counting, the coronavirus (COVID-19) is leaving devastated healthcare systems, economies, and societies in its wake. It is a global crisis that presents particularly unique challenges for democracies. The evidence is clear that social distancing is crucial for flattening the epidemic curve and many governments have responded by imposing strict lockdowns and even surveillance measures on its citizens. For democracies, the implementation of such draconian measures, even if only temporarily, places pressures on democratic institutions which, in turn, risk undermining public trust that democratic freedoms are being protected. In the face of these unprecedented challenges, a variety of malign actors have looked to exploit these crises with pandemic propaganda and disinformation. It is no coincidence that the world’s democracies have been the target of such malign influence efforts by the global champions of authoritarianism and violent extremists alike.
For example, despite COVID-19 being traced to the city of Wuhan in November 2019, and the Chinese government’s inaction, coverups, and lies all but guaranteeing the virus’s global spread, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials have actively championed conspiracies that the U.S. Army is the source of the virus while engaging in a broader “soft power” campaign to present itself as the world’s public health leader and threaten “economic coercion” against nations that criticize it. The CCP’s aggressive approach offers hints to its possible post-pandemic aspirations. Meanwhile, the Russian government has broadly followed its customary playbook with multilingual campaigns, spreading false and provocative messages designed to sow discord and mistrust in western democracies. On the other end of the threat spectrum, violent non-state actors from far-right extremists to jihadis have variously framed the pandemic as either indicative of or a catalyst for the collapse of democratic and free market systems. Whether stated explicitly or implied, the theme that binds much of this pandemic malign influence currently targeting western nations is that democracy, both as a system of government and a set of values, is incapable of dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.
It is therefore important not to view pandemic propaganda and disinformation solely through the lens of the COVID-19 bubble. It is also the latest instrument of anti-democratic malign influence designed to erode a “trinity of trusts” in democratic populations: social trust, trust in authorities/expertise, and trust in democracy. Understanding pandemic propaganda and disinformation in this way highlights the importance and urgency of confronting it, especially given the immense pressures democratic institutions will face in the coming months. All this is at a time when democracy has been in global decline for over a decade, a phenomenon known as the global democratic recession. A recent series of War on the Rocks articles argued that new frameworks through which to understand propaganda and disinformation threats are needed to improve strategic-policy discourse and decision-making. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the pertinence of that appeal. In many ways, this article is a response to that call. It argues that anti-democratic malign influence is a useful framework through which to not only understand propaganda and disinformation threats, but to devise strategies that are complementary to broader national security and to foreign and public policy objectives.
A Torrent of Malign Influence and the Need for New Frameworks
The U.S. government’s interagency will be severely tested by a confluence of forces in the coming months. Three are particularly significant. First, the immense pressures being placed on all parts of the U.S. interagency by the COVID-19 pandemic will be significantly compounded by a workforce weakened by illness and social-distancing restrictions. The agencies responsible for confronting malign influence threats, such as the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), and the broader intelligence community, will need to deal with a surge of pandemic-related activities with an overstretched workforce and potentially constrained budgets. International allies, so crucial to effectively monitoring and confronting malign influence threats, will be dealing with their own resource and personnel limitations, further weakening overall efforts.
Second, the COVID-19 pandemic and the draconian government responses necessary to lessening its impact will cause significant social upheaval and financial volatility as health systems are put under strain and unemployment soars. The world is facing an economic recession that may deteriorate into an economic depression. Fear, stress, and uncertainty will have a profound psychosocial impact on individuals and communities all over the world. Studies have shown that extreme stress impairs cognitive function, making it harder (i.e., more time and energy intensive) to switch from “automatic” to “deliberative” thinking, thus rendering people more susceptible to cognitive biases. These conditions will increase individual and collective vulnerabilities, potentially broadening the pool with whom malign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation resonates.
Third, the wave of malign influence activities targeting the November presidential election is yet to hit in full. Given the practical and symbolic importance of free and fair elections in the democratic system of government, elections are a high-value, high-impact target for malign influence actors, especially those buoyed by the turmoil caused during the 2016 presidential election. The Democratic primaries were targeted by Russian government and pro-Kremlin entities in ways which suggest that new tools, strategies, and troll farms have been added to that information arsenal. The coronavirus has already caused the postponement and cancellation of some Democratic primaries and, with the prospect of the pandemic remaining a public health threat through the fall, there are growing concerns that the integrity of the presidential election is at risk.
The overall picture that emerges is deeply concerning. With the capacity of the United States and its allies potentially being overstretched and distracted while vulnerabilities in target populations are exacerbated by pandemic-induced crises, opportunities will be ripe for exploitation by malign state and non-state actors. Under these conditions, gaps in the U.S. posture to deal with propaganda and disinformation threats will be exposed.
The policy paper Persuade or Perish assessed the U.S. posture to confront foreign malign influence threats based on a year of interviews with State Department officials and exclusive access to internal GEC assessments. Recognizing that posture is as much the product of institutional history as it is of contemporary decisions, the policy paper offered historical context for National Security Strategy 2017’s assertion that “U.S. efforts to counter the exploitation of information by rivals have been tepid and fragmented. U.S. efforts have lacked a sustained focus and have been hampered by the lack of properly trained professionals.” The history of the U.S. government’s foreign policy and national security information sector is characterized by a century-long trend of intermittently building, dismantling, then rebuilding its central mechanisms. Since 2017, however, a concerted effort has been made to enhance interagency legislative, strategic-policy, and operational capabilities. For the GEC, this included its codification into law, the appointment of Lea Gabrielle as Special Envoy, and the implementation of an internal strategy for managing the GEC’s growing responsibilities, budget, and personnel as the overarching coordinating mechanism for the U.S. interagency and its multisector partners. More broadly, the introduction of a suite of legislative changes in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 enabling a full spectrum approach by the U.S. interagency is a significant step in the right direction. Efforts have also been made to address specific threat vulnerabilities, such as the appointment of Shelby Pierson as the nation’s top election security official to improve federal, state, and local coordination.
But decades of fluctuating support for the U.S. government’s national and foreign policy information sector will take time to overcome. It is little wonder, then, that the policy paper identified inadequate efforts to retain institutional knowledge and limited mechanisms for strategic and communicative coordination as crucial gaps in the current U.S. posture. Additionally, in interviews with State Department officials, many expressed the urgent need for a new overarching framework to understand the spectrum of state and non-state malign influence threats targeting the United States and its allies. Without such a framework, counterstrategy efforts risk being siloed around certain threats (e.g., jihadi) while other threats are inadvertently given the space to evolve until focus and resources belatedly shift (e.g., Russia, China, far-right). Moreover, the ways in which malign influence threats are understood, and counterstrategies are developed, need to synchronize with broader national security, and with foreign and public policy objectives. Anti-democratic malign influence is a framework that looks to broadly satisfy these requirements.
The Strategic Logic of Anti-Democratic Malign Influence
As detailed in a recent article for the Royal United Services Institute, a diverse spectrum of state and non-state propaganda and disinformation threats targeting democracies like the United States are best understood as anti-democratic influence activities due to their shared strategic logic of intents and effects. As illustrated in Figure 1, anti-democratic malign influence seeks to erode a “trinity of trusts” in target populations: social trust (i.e., trust in others), trust in authority/expertise, and trust in democracy. Of course, malign influence activities inevitably have other, shorter-term aims, such as terrorist propaganda, which may seek to recruit or incite, while disinformation from state actors may seek to divert or distract its audiences. While this framework is complementary to understanding those more immediate goals, it brings into focus broader psychosocial and strategic effects that are especially pertinent in the medium and long terms. It is useful to consider examples.
Figure 1: The strategic logic of anti-democratic influence activities. (Graphic by the author)
Anti-democratic malign influence targets — whether strategically or incidentally — a “trinity of trusts” in the population that are crucial to a functioning democracy. From jihadis to racist far-right groups, violent extremist propaganda targeting democratic populations not only seeks to polarize and antagonize identity differences, but to highlight the inadequacies of the democratic system to justify calls for violence against it. In a 2013 article in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire English-language magazine, the author compels Western Muslims to realize that the promises of democracy are made to all but them because “your belongingness to Islam is enough to classify you as an enemy. They do not consider our citizenship and the childhood we spent in their neighborhoods.” A central narrative in the strain of the racist far-right propaganda that inspired mass murders in Norway and New Zealand is that, to varying degrees, liberal democracy is destroying the white race, its legacy and future in a process described as the “Great Replacement.” The COVID-19 crisis has been opportunistically exploited by violent extremists. For example, the Islamic State’s al-Naba newsletter framed the coronavirus as God’s punishment against “idolatrous” nations (e.g., secular democracies) while far-right extremists responded in a variety of ways from blaming minority groups (i.e., eroding social trust) to highlighting how the pandemic would exacerbate systemic weaknesses inherent to democracies.
This broad strategic logic is evident in the influence efforts of adversarial state actors, too. When the Russian Internet Agency targeted antagonistic political groups with disinformation to incite opposing protest actions during the 2016 presidential election, its broader purpose was to erode social trust. Chinese government efforts to coopt academics and politicians have clear short-term objectives, such as the championing of CCP-approved talking points and policy ends. However, this coopting of academics and politicians also may have the effect of reducing public trust in authorities and experts over time. Adversarial state actors have been especially active in leveraging COVID-19 in their malign influence activities. For instance, Chinese officials have actively tried to degrade trust in not only American experts and authorities by championing discredited conspiracy theories, but trust in the capability of democracies more broadly to deal with the crisis. Pro-Kremlin pandemic propaganda and disinformation has attempted to incite anti-NATO attitudes in Eastern European audiences while a European Union report highlighted how Russian disinformation efforts attempted to sow mistrust and worsen the health crisis in Western countries. In March, Chinese agents used a similar strategy by disseminating messages in the United States that were designed to sow panic and distrust amongst Americans just as the pandemic was surging. That China, Russia, and Iran have adopted largely similar propagandistic talking points — championing anti-American conspiracy theories, highlighting the supposed ineptitude of western responses, and dismissing calls for transparency as petty politics while praising each other’s responses — is in many ways reflective of a shared anti-democratic logic.
The framework proposed here is useful for not just understanding a spectrum of threats, but appreciating the potential effects of such activities on target populations over time. The research underpinning this model suggests that, with ongoing exposure, target populations may become more susceptible to polarizing narratives that offer bipolar explanations for and solutions to their perceptions of crisis. Think, for example, of the rise of populist leaders whose narratives typically refer to an idealized history tied to a small but “pure” constituency that must overcome the mongrel hordes and corrupted elites. A weakening “trinity of trusts” in a population can also lead to increasing attitudinal support for undemocratic forms of government or even, at the more extreme end, engagement in politically-motivated violence. Moreover, because anti-democratic propaganda and disinformation tends to exploit extant vulnerabilities, over time it may broaden the pool of those for whom such malign influence resonates. This underscores the importance of actively pushing back against anti-democratic malign influence, especially during times of crisis when the population’s vulnerabilities are heightened. After all, even before the spread of COVID-19, democracy around the world was on the slide.
A Global Democratic Recession on the Precipice of Crisis
Since 2006, and in stark contrast to the preceding thirty years, there has been a decline in both the number of democracies and the level of freedoms within democracies around the world. A recent Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index report described democracy as being in “retreat” globally. It is a finding echoed by a Freedom House report that suggests democracy’s thirteen-year drop has resulted in 116 countries experiencing a net decline in key measures of democratic health, compared to 63 with a net improvement. While the failure of second and third wave democracies, especially in Africa and Asia, accounts for some of this drift, perhaps the most troubling trend has been the freedom decay in established, prosperous first wave democracies. The “trinity of trusts” inside the world’s democracies are often fragile and commitment to democracy itself is suffering. For example, a Pew Research study polling across 38 countries found that only about a quarter of the respondents were “committed democrats” while almost half were “non-committed democrats,” and a further 13 percent supported nondemocratic forms of government.
The picture is simple and unequivocal: the global democratic recession is sliding towards democratic depression. To add insult to injury, democracy’s decline has been partnered by a global authoritarian resurgence. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that this authoritarian resurgence and the spread of anti-democratic malign influence has caused democracy’s slump. Rather, the most destructive wounds to the democratic cause have been self-inflicted. It is perhaps little wonder that faith in democracy is waning, even in the most prosperous and established democracies, after years of politicians telling electorates that certain democratic promises and freedoms need to be diluted or temporarily suspended in the name of counterterrorism with democratic institutions and processes being cynically used to make undemocratic reforms. Larry Diamond, a leading democracy scholar, identified reductions in per capita income and weak constraints on executive power as key drivers of the fragility of a democracy. These considerations may prove especially pertinent now amidst a global pandemic given the weakening global economy and the necessity of draconian measures to stifle COVID-19’s spread. Rest assured that malign state and non-state actors will continue to use influence operations to opportunistically exploit vulnerabilities, especially the say-do gaps between democratic promises and reality. On the other hand, Diamond’s study points to the importance of a supportive international environment for increasing resiliencies within democracies. With 2020 emerging as a crucial year in both the struggle against the COVID-19 virus and the global democratic cause, the question is what should the United States and its allies do?
Persuade or Perish
While pandemic propaganda and disinformation represent a crucial public health threat, this article has argued that these actions are also part of a broader and varied range of anti-democratic influence activities designed to destabilize democratic societies and catalyze the dysfunction of democratic institutions. This has important implications for practice. First, this framework provides multisector practitioners with an overarching paradigm that brings into focus both the intended psychosocial and strategic effects, and the vulnerabilities that these malign influence activities seek to exploit. Consequently, rather than a “whack-a-mole” approach, targeting malign influence actions as they emerge, operational and strategic planning can be guided by a more coherent and encompassing program. Second, government officials should look to frame pandemic propaganda and disinformation as not only an assault on public health but on democracy in their addresses. The more that international allies, the private sector, media, civil society, and the general public can be educated about the systemic and ongoing effort to erode the “trinity of trusts” in democracy, the better equipped those sectors will be to identify threats, respond appropriately, and call out those who purposely or inadvertently amplify malign influence efforts.
Echoing the recommendations outlined in an earlier assessment, U.S. efforts to counter propaganda and disinformation threats would benefit from strategic guidance, broadly similar in intent to the Reagan administration’s National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 75, which clearly outlines a set of broad interlocking principles, intents, and objectives to synchronize messaging and action across the interagency. NSDD75 detailed a comprehensive and flexible agenda to coordinate the U.S. government’s interagency as the Reagan administration shifted from a posture of “containment” to “rollback” against the Soviet threat. Whether such a document is developed specifically for confronting COVID-19 propaganda and disinformation or the broader threat of anti-democratic malign influence, strategic coordination is a crucial mechanism for achieving a more coherent and less siloed approach. The development and dissemination of a “new” NSDD75 would also help to improve communicative coordination to avoid the type of messaging schizophrenia that can emerge across a diverse interagency dealing with a rolling crisis.
Finally, democracies around the world need to establish a unified front against these anti-democratic adversaries. At first, this may be largely symbolic and ad hoc. But, over time, it will be important for a shared understanding of these threats to inform the foundations of a more coordinated global effort of not only intelligence and knowledge sharing, but of messaging and action as well. There is an opportunity in the midst of this crisis for democracies to demonstrate transparency and accountability (especially when it will hurt) and show how a free and open society is in fact best positioned to deal with a crisis that demands factual, evidence-based strategic-policy decisions. It is precisely because of the weakness of these values and practices that authoritarian regimes — like those in China, Russia, and Iran — are inherently disadvantaged. Their ruling elites will instinctively prioritize self-protection, censorship, and propaganda over the alternative, to the detriment of their own people (their most exposed victims) and, in the case of COVID-19, the world.
Errors will inevitably be made along the way. Already the greatest hits to the credibility of democracies around the world have come from the mistakes of their own governments and of its leaders. As Wallace Carroll, the former deputy-director of the Office of War Information, wrote in his exceptional book Persuade or Perish in 1948: “The psychological war is like that; it is fought, not on two roughly parallel linear fronts, but over the whole 360 degrees of the circle, and the most dangerous and telling blows are sometimes struck by those who in the linear war are on your side.” There is something that all the world’s democracies could do right now, and that is publicly join Australia in its demand for an independent inquiry into COVID-19’s origins and transparency around the CCP’s initial response. If the hyperventilating rhetoric of Chinese officials is enough to intimidate other democracies from publicly supporting Australia’s call, then the world can expect more CCP aggression in the West Philippine Sea, crackdowns on pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong, and a variety of other anti-democratic actors feeling empowered to act out.
Haroro J. Ingram is a senior research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and a member of the RESOLVE Network’s Research Advisory Council. Alongside Craig Whiteside and Charlie Winter, he coauthored The ISIS Reader published by Hurst (UK) and Oxford University Press (USA). Twitter: @haroro_ingram
Image: Adam Singer