Tyrants on Twitter
Protecting Democracies from Information Warfare
Stanford Studies in Law and Politics
Published by: Stanford University Press
352 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503628441
- Published: April 2022
A look inside the weaponization of social media, and an innovative proposal for protecting Western democracies from information warfare.
When Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram were first introduced to the public, their mission was simple: they were designed to help people become more connected to each other. Social media became a thriving digital space by giving its users the freedom to share whatever they wanted with their friends and followers. Unfortunately, these same digital tools are also easy to manipulate. As exemplified by Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, authoritarian states can exploit social media to interfere with democratic governance in open societies.
Tyrants on Twitter is the first detailed analysis of how Chinese and Russian agents weaponize Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube to subvert the liberal international order. In addition to examining the 2016 U.S. election, David L. Sloss explores Russia's use of foreign influence operations to threaten democracies in Europe, as well as China's use of social media and other digital tools to meddle in Western democracies and buttress autocratic rulers around the world.
Sloss calls for cooperation among democratic governments to create a new transnational system for regulating social media to protect Western democracies from information warfare. Drawing on his professional experience as an arms control negotiator, he outlines a novel system of transnational governance that Western democracies can enforce by harmonizing their domestic regulations. And drawing on his academic expertise in constitutional law, he explains why that system—if implemented by legislation in the United States—would be constitutionally defensible, despite likely First Amendment objections. With its critical examination of information warfare and its proposal for practical legislative solutions to fight back, this book is essential reading in a time when disinformation campaigns threaten to undermine democracy.
This chapter addresses Russian information warfare during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The chapter analyzes Russia's broader strategic objectives and describes its hacking and dumping operation. It presents a detailed analysis of Russia's social media influence operation and assesses the likely impact of Russian information warfare on the 2016 presidential election. The final section discusses significant new developments related to the 2020 presidential election. The key takeaway is this: An impartial analyst weighing all of the available evidence could reasonably conclude there is a significant likelihood that, absent Russian information warfare, Hillary Clinton would have won the 2016 presidential election.
Since 2014, Russia has conducted foreign influence operations in at least twenty-one countries that are members of NATO, the European Union (EU), or both. Russia wants to weaken both NATO and the EU. Its long-term goal is to upend the liberal international order by turning Western virtues of openness and pluralism into vulnerabilities to be exploited. This chapter presents case studies of three foreign influence operations: Russia's effort to influence the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom in June 2016; Russian interference with the French presidential election in spring 2017; and Russian influence operations related to the national election in Sweden in 2018.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doctrine emphasizes the strategic importance of the party's control of media, culture, and narrative. China's use of social media to conduct foreign influence operations is one element of a sophisticated global information strategy. China seeks to transform the liberal international order so that international norms and institutions align more closely with China's authoritarian governance model. This chapter first analyzes China's overall strategic goals in international affairs, and then examines Chinese information operations broadly, focusing on traditional media. The chapter then zeroes in on social media as a tool for Chinese information warfare, followed by an analysis of Chinese interference in established democracies. The final part addresses China's use of information technology to support the diffusion of digital authoritarianism throughout the global South.
For the foreseeable future, the world will be divided between democracies and autocracies. The United States and other liberal democracies have an interest in encouraging autocratic states to become more liberal and more democratic; military forces are not well suited for this type of ideological competition. Instead, the ideological battle will be fought with propaganda, public diplomacy, and other types of information operations. We cannot assume that liberal democracy will prevail in an ideological competition with authoritarianism, because the outcome of that competition depends on whether the contestants are competing on a level playing field. This chapter demonstrates that the playing field is not level. The combination of digital authoritarianism in autocratic states and the laissez-faire approach to regulating social media in democratic states creates an uneven playing field in the ideological competition between liberal democracy and authoritarianism.
This chapter presents a proposal for transnational regulation of social media to defend against Chinese and Russian information warfare. The proposed regulatory system includes: an alliance of democratic states that will cooperate to protect democracies from information warfare; a rule prohibiting Chinese and Russian agents from creating or operating accounts on regulated social media platforms (the "ban"); a disclaimer regime that will provide warnings for domestic audiences in Alliance member states when foreigners from nondemocratic states transmit election-related messages via social media; a registration system that will require social media users to register their accounts and declare their nationalities; safeguards to protect informational privacy and data security; and an exemption from the registration system for social media users who choose to maintain private accounts.
This chapter contends that the benefits of the proposed transnational regulatory regime outweigh the costs. Exclusive reliance on industry self-regulation is misguided; government regulation of social media is essential to protect Western democracies from information warfare. Government regulation must address organic posts on social media (not just paid advertisements) and must be preventative, not merely reactive. The rule banning Chinese and Russian agents from regulated social media platforms, and the associated disclaimer rules, would yield substantial benefits with few offsetting costs. The proposed social media registration system presents both benefits and risks. The chapter analyzes the potential downsides of the registration system, including the fear that governments would exploit the registration system to infringe the privacy rights of social media users.
This chapter assumes that Congress will enact a statute to implement the proposed transnational regulatory system. I refer to that statute as the Defending American Democracy Act, or DADA. The chapter outlines key differences between Madisonian and libertarian theories of the First Amendment. It presents a First Amendment analysis of DADA in three parts, analyzing separately the disclaimer provisions, the registration system, and the ban on Russian and Chinese agents. The analysis demonstrates that, from a Madisonian perspective, all three elements of DADA are constitutional. Moreover, the Supreme Court's libertarian justices would almost certainly uphold the disclaimer requirements and would probably uphold the registration system. Finally, there are sound constitutional arguments the government could advance that might, or might not, persuade libertarian justices that the ban is constitutionally valid.
"Tyrants may have Twitter, but democracies have David Sloss. He has written a pathbreaking book that does more than just identify a troubling trend of modern elections. It also boldly proposes a transnational solution, including his innovative Alliance for Democracy. His contribution will endure long after the Age of Tyrants fades away." ~Jens David Ohlin, Cornell Law School
"This is a detailed and extremely informative analysis of the threat of Chinese and Russian information warfare, and the related export of digital authoritarianism. Sloss's technical approach to addressing external threats while balancing the protection of free speech, personal privacy, and data security will be an important reference and source of ideas for policymakers and analysts grappling with these critical issues." ~Fiona Hill, Brookings Institution
"It is no hyperbole to say that the future of democracy depends on dealing with the issues raised in this book. Sloss masterfully lays out the problem and goes on to propose a novel, workable solution. This book is sure to stimulate debate, and hopefully action as well." ~Tom Ginsburg, The University of Chicago Law School
"Sloss's book is a timely and original contribution that draws a comprehensive picture of foreign states' interference with democratic governance on social media. Not only does Sloss provide a thorough analysis of the phenomenon, he also offers substantial proposals for transnational legislation. A must-read for all interested in the challenges that the international liberal order currently faces." ~Heike Krieger, Freie Universität Berlin