Russia’s 2016 election interference operation was a clumsy collection of fake memes and leaked emails. Still, it divided American society, eroded trust in national institutions and caught Washington flat-footed. A new wave of sophisticated, artificial-intelligence-enabled influence campaigns is surely headed our way in 2020, yet the United States is nowhere near ready.
Continued division over the meaning of meddling in 2016 must not eclipse what should be a clear bipartisan priority — a national strategy to combat malicious foreign influence.
The tip of the influence operations spear is found in the Asia-Pacific region, yet few are paying attention. Working with the Defending Digital Democracy project at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, we conducted more than 30 interviews with government officials, journalists and civil society members in Taiwan and found that Taiwanese society is saturated with Chinese disinformation and influence.
Our findings highlight how Beijing has systematically assaulted Taiwan’s democracy via economic, political and cultural lines of influence. Beijing has also inundated Taiwan’s social media with misleading reports about Taiwanese officials’ corruption and incompetence and used fake accounts to steer Internet traffic toward pro-China stories. China’s actions have fueled protests, impacted elections and may have triggered a diplomat’s suicide.
Democrats and Republicans need to reach a consensus about the red lines of foreign influence that neither party will tolerate.
Meanwhile, traditional media are self-censored by owners with economic interests on the mainland. Taiwanese billionaire Tsai Eng-Meng, for example, controls Taiwan’s largest news outlets and operates over 100 manufacturing plants in China. In May, Tsai organized a closed-door meeting for Taiwanese journalists during which a high-ranking Chinese official spoke about the inevitability of reunification and the folly of relying on the U.S. for Taiwan’s security.
In addition to cultivating ties with journalists, China also seeks out academics and business leaders to amplify Beijing’s propaganda. While Russia seeks to divide its target societies, China seeks to capture them.
China’s approach is more subtle than Russia’s political memes and bot farms. China plays a long game focused on securing elite support through economic incentives, blackmail and digital pressure that shapes public opinion. And now it’s beginning to employ those tactics in the United States. Beijing imposed tariffs on goods, such as soybeans and whiskey, that target those likely to vote for President Trump, and placed an anti-trade-war advertisement in an Iowa newspaper during the 2018 midterm elections. Much subtler and more impactful tactics will follow. As Vice President Mike Pence put it last fall: “China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion.”
Beijing promotes a pro-China perspective in Hollywood scripts, American media stories and U.S. academic research by threatening to curtail access to Chinese consumers, funding and research opportunities in response to negative narratives. As China’s influence grows, our public discourse will become increasingly self-censored.
Americans can begin fighting back by not making ourselves such soft targets. As politicians stoke distrust in traditional gatekeepers of information, partisan disinformation grabs viewers’ attention. In a so-called post-truth environment, our society becomes easy prey for sophisticated foreign adversaries. America’s competitors need only lend willing policymakers the verbal weapons to savage their opponents and watch our democracy erode.
The U.S. has made some strides in combating influence operations. The FBI’s Combating Foreign Influence Task Force, together with the Department of Homeland Security, has established relationships with local election officials to help identify and react to social media posts with false election-related content, such as an ad that encouraged voters to text their vote on election day. Major technology companies such as Facebook and Twitter have pledged to devote more resources to address misuse of their platforms. Startups and civil society groups such as Factmata, NewsGuard and the Defending Digital Democracy project use data analytics and government engagement to raise public awareness around disinformation.
A recent doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi illustrates remaining vulnerabilities. The video had been slowed down to make it look like Pelosi was drunk. Although debunked, the viral video claimed millions of views and was reposted by prominent U.S. officials. Facebook said the video did not violate its terms of service and declined to remove it.
Of course, the United States cannot defend against or deter all foreign influence. However, by focusing on building societal resilience, it can mitigate many of its effects.
The U.S. should adapt its counterintelligence abilities to identify multi-channel influence campaigns such as China’s United Front strategy, which uses legal tactics to develop public and private-sector assets and recruit elites. Then the U.S. must apply a whole of government approach to communicate findings to the public so they can judge the reliability of the reports for themselves.
To counter foreign influence, the old adage is true: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Increased government transparency at all levels will allow for independent fact verification by citizens and journalists and help revive faith in institutions. Federal agencies can start by declassifying influence reports in real time and granting researchers access to technical indicators that explain how intelligence analysts traced content to foreign sources. Legislators can mandate transparency around online and print advertising. State and local election officials can continue to strengthen communication plans and formal agreements with federal response teams and social media companies to enhance their rapid response capabilities.
However, none of this will matter if politicians continue to reduce this national security threat to partisan gamesmanship. Democrats and Republicans need to reach a consensus about the red lines of foreign influence that neither party will tolerate. U.S. citizens must be told the risks associated with foreign influence. Every government official should characterize foreign influence as a real and pressing threat to the public. Without a coordinated campaign to build societal resilience, the U.S. risks succumbing to foreign influence or tearing itself apart.
Casey Corcoran, Bo Julie Crowley and Raina Davis are Belfer International and Global Affairs Student Fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School.