A Digital Cold War – Santa Clara Magazine
SCM: How is modern information warfare different from, say, the American radio service Voice of America or even the explicit propaganda efforts of decades past
Sloss: Technology has changed. It has become much, much easier for states and state-related actors to influence the information environment in other states.
What is happening with China right now is a kind of Voice of America on steroids. It’s partly the technology and partly the fact that China has made a huge investment in global information operations. China sees this as a very important part of the broader geopolitical competition.
China has spent billions to increase its ability to influence information environments in countries around the world, in Africa, Asia and Latin America. China is now using this network to spread Russian disinformation about the war in Ukraine, for example.
SCM: Thus, states use information – or misinformation – to influence people around the world. And these states are able to reach more people than ever before, perhaps in ways where those people don’t know they are consuming information from outside actors through social media. But why does this control over information or influence over information environments matter more than during the Cold War?
Sloss: The field of information is much more important today than it was 30 years ago. There are changes in technology, but there are also changes in the playing field.
The United States effectively won the Cold War against the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union was an economic basket case. They didn’t have a viable business model. China does. We are not going to beat China economically like we did with the Soviet Union.
And, for the same reasons that were true during the Cold War, no one wants to get into a major military conflict – it’s very costly. It is therefore also not an effective means of advancing the international system. All this enhances competition in the field of information.
SCM: In your book, you explain how this information playground favors autocracies over democracies, since democracies value the free exchange of information. Could you explain how it works?
Sloss: We tend to think that having an open information environment is a virtue, right? And I think if you look at it in purely national terms, that’s true. There are a lot of advantages to the American approach, where we have an open information system, as opposed to the Chinese approach, where they have a closed information environment.
But if you look at it in terms of international competition, that changes. We really have an uneven playing field because we can’t do to them what they do to us.
The most notorious example, and still one of the best examples, is the Russian intervention in the 2016 US election. There are very credible arguments that Russia may have swung this election in favor of Donald Trump.
Could we do the same with Russia or China? No, we can’t. They have closed information environments, so it’s much, much harder for us to influence the national information environment in China or Russia. And they don’t have free and fair elections, so we can’t really shape the election results because they don’t have free elections.
They can influence our elections. They can influence our informational environment. They can do it in a way that we can’t do it to them. So the question is, are we just living with this asymmetry or are we trying to find ways to reduce or reverse this asymmetry?
SCM: In the book, you offer ways to address the asymmetry – an alliance for democracy to tackle these issues internationally – and reduce fake accounts. How does this work?
Sloss: The alliance for democracy would initially include 35 or 40 countries, all of which are liberal democracies, and they would work together to develop a transnational regulatory system for social media. This would be through an international agreement, but that agreement would largely be implemented by each state adopting its own national regulations.
The centerpiece of my proposal is that you would ban Chinese and Russian state agents from major social media platforms. As soon as you talk about banning, some people in democracies will raise concerns about free speech. It is certainly a difficult sell. But it’s worth it. It is necessary to level the playing field.
To be effective, in my opinion, what you need is a social media registration system, so anyone who maintains a public account on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., should register with certain identifying information about themselves, which is passed on to their governments who can confirm that it is a real person. The whole thing is to make sure that there are no fake accounts created by, say, Russian agents. This would not apply to what I call private accounts.
Without this kind of record system, it is basically impossible to do any meaningful job of shutting down fake accounts. Of course, when I talk about a recording system, a lot of people start worrying about privacy. In the book, I explain in detail why the proposed registration system does not actually pose a significant risk to the privacy of social media users. Of course, people may still be suspicious that the registration system would infringe on their privacy, and this mistrust or lack of trust is in itself a problem.
SCM: With every decision or set of rules comes trade-offs. But from your point of view, the threat to national democracy and to the international system is significant enough to consider these externalities.
Sloss: It’s exactly that. There is a broad consensus that the quality of democracy in the United States has declined over the past 10 or 15 years. The quality of democracy in many other liberal democracies has also declined.
Abundant evidence suggests that information warfare is one of the most important factors contributing to this global democratic decline we are witnessing. The main objective of my proposal is to limit the effectiveness of information warfare and hopefully reverse the process of democratic decline. I think most people would agree that is a very laudable goal.
I can’t guarantee my proposal would make a big difference in reversing democratic decline, but I think it’s worth a try.
SCM: This is one of those situations where you could try things or do nothing, and the outcome of those decisions could be quite brutal.
Sloss: Yes. The costs of my proposal are relatively small, but the potential benefits are significant: preserving liberal democracies and a world order in which liberal democracies can flourish.