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Disinformation, Democracy, and the Rule of Law

By Asha Rangappa

Much of the public discussion on Russia’s disinformation operations in the U.S. has focused on their impact on the 2016 election and how they might affect elections in the future.  But the damage that Russia seeks to inflict through its disinformation campaign isn’t limited to electoral contests. Rather, its long-term strategy has been to erode faith in the primary pillars upon which our democracy is based – including the rule of law and the institutions that support it. So far, Russia’s efforts are yielding fruit, and technological and legislative fixes alone will be insufficient to counter them. Defending against Russian disinformation in the long term will require a strategy to fortify America’s social fabric with an understanding of shared civic values that can serve as a prophylactic against Russia’s future attacks.

I: Russian Dezinformatsiya

Although Russia utilized relatively recent technology like social media platforms in its assault on the 2016 election, its overarching tactics and goals were not new.

“Active measures” – as the full panoply of Russia’s subversive measures, including disinformation and propaganda, are known – were a central component of the KGB’s intelligence operations in the U.S. during the Cold War. Yuri Bezmenov, a KGB officer who defected to the United States, explained in 1984 that the central focus of the KGB’s active measures were to “subvert anything of value in [its] enemy’s country,” and to do so by pitting groups against each other and creating internal chaos within the enemy state.

In the United States, of course, a central value established by the Constitution is the rule of law. Professor Tom Tyler of Yale Law School defines the rule of law as a belief in the legitimacy, fairness, and impartiality of a legal process, regardless of its outcome. The idea that any individual can have their voice heard, and be treated as an equal in a court of law, is a building block of a democratic society: Courts are the guardians of individual rights, and having faith in their legitimacy is a necessary prerequisite for having faith in fundamental democratic ideals like equality, due process, and freedom. Not surprisingly, Bezmenov notes that fostering mistrust in the justice system was one of the primary objectives for the KGB’s active measures, since undermining the legitimacy of courts and law enforcement would ultimately undermine Americans’ belief in the rights they protect.

Fortunately for America, the KGB had limited success in its attempts to subvert the rule of law during the Cold War. In 1982, the House Select Committee on Intelligence held hearings to examine the Soviet’s use of active measures. (Yes, this isn’t Congress’s first rodeo on the topic, believe it or not.) It found that the Soviet Union’s operations suffered from several weaknesses, the most notable one of which was its ideology.

The House Committee determined that the KGB had the most success with groups in which it could find a common cause with marginalized groups – in that era, that was mostly individuals and organizations on the political left, who were already challenging the political and legal status quo in the realm of civil rights, racial justice, and Vietnam. But as a nation-state that was, ultimately, seeking to spread its vision of an alternative to capitalism – and notably, had a political philosophy that was explicitly atheistic – the Soviet Union made little headway in recruiting agents in the political mainstream, particularly on the right. Penetrating conservatives – whose political identity was intertwined with religion as well an anti-Communist bent – was an uphill battle.

Fast forward almost three decades and the same does not hold true. Russia is no longer constrained by a political ideology, giving it more flexibility to appeal to a broader swath of the political spectrum. Indeed, not having to offer an alternative to the U.S. capitalist model has left Russia free to focus simply on division. In doing so, it has been able to manipulate socially charged issues like gun rights and immigration to capture and manipulate the political right. As a result, Russia, for the first time, has a credible proxy through which to attack the rule of law and its institutions: conservatives. Having the traditional defenders of law and order attack the FBI and judges – or remain silent in the face of disparaging language from the president himself – has “mainstreamed” an objective that was once only articulated by the radical left. (Russia also continues to agitate groups on the left as well, which only enhances its primary objective of promoting internal conflict in the U.S.).

In the 21st century, Russia also no longer suffers from another shortcoming the House Committee identified in 1982: technological weakness. The democratizing effect of the Internet and social media has given a voice to billions of people around the world – but it has also made Russia’s job easier. Once, a disinformation campaign would have once taken two years of methodical planning, using human sources, to enter into mainstream media, as the Soviet Union’s planting of a rumor that the United States military created the AIDS virus, did. Today, Russia can now remotely create exponentially more content and achieve a global reach in a matter of hours. Moreover, Russia has the capacity to artificially amplify divisive messages it wants to spread – including those that color the U.S. legal system as biased and corrupt – using automated bots and government-employed trolls in a “flooding attack” that drowns out voices arguing otherwise.

II. Assessing America’s vulnerabilities to disinformation

Partly because social media has been the big game-changer in terms of the effectiveness of Russia’s disinformation efforts, it’s tempting believe that the answer lies purely in changing, or at least tweaking, the social media platforms themselves and strengthening our cyber defenses. Certainly, technological and legislative solutions – such as shoring up election infrastructure or increasing regulation of political advertising on social media – are important. But this approach standing alone doesn’t address the core vulnerabilities which allowed Russian disinformation to take root.

For that purpose, social capital theory provides a useful framework.

Social capital, as defined by Harvard Professor Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, refers to the way we create value from social relationships. According to Putnam, social capital is an important indicator of a society’s health, because it reflects, in part, the level of social trust among individuals. In a society with high social capital, there will also be a high level of “generalized” social trust. That trust is expressed as a willingness to believe in the goodwill of fellow citizens, even those we do not know, and give them the benefit of the doubt. High levels of social trust, in turn, are related to civic values. Putnam notes that “people who trust their fellow citizens volunteer more often, contribute more to charity, participate more often in politics and community organizations, serve more readily on juries, give blood more frequently, comply more fully with their tax obligations, are more tolerant of minority views, and display many other forms of civic virtue.”

Alarmingly, however, social capital, and its accompanying levels of civic engagement, has dropped precipitously since World War II in the US. Putnam notes that compared to Americans born before 1945, each successive generation has been less likely to participate in the following twelve indicia of civic engagement: reading the newspaper daily; attending church weekly; signing a petition; joining a union; attending a public meeting; writing a congressman; being in the leadership of a local organization; writing a letter to a newspaper; working for a political party; or running for political office. Relatedly, levels of social trust are at an all-time low. The last poll from the General Social Survey, which asks Americans whether they believe “most people can be trusted,” is at 30%, its lowest point since they began asking the question in 1972.

Putnam found that some technologies contributed significantly to the decline in social capital and social trust over the last half century. In particular, television – by becoming a prominent part of Americans’ leisure time – increasingly led to retreat to the home as a replacement for civic and community involvement. Further, as a self-contained form of entertainment, television also led to decreased interpersonal interaction, both inside and outside the home. Putnam concludes that “dependence on television for entertainment…is the single most consistent predictor” of civic disengagement.

Putnam was writing in 2000, after the dotcom boom but before the explosion of wireless broadband Internet and the smartphone era. But there’s reason to believe that social media has continued this trend, and perhaps even made it worse. This is because of the intersection between social capital theory and how social media operates. Specifically, Putnam writes that social capital is formed in one of two ways: through bonding, and through bridging. Bonding is when individuals create relationships with others based on shared characteristics – race, or religion, for example. Bridging, by contrast, is when relationships are formed across social cleavages, among diverse groups of people. Both are necessary for a health society: Bonding offers a social safety net, and can leverage shared strengths (think of ethnic enclaves that provide communities for newly-arrived immigrants), and bridging allows new ideas to travel, fostering innovation (universities aspire to do this).

Importantly, however, Putnam observes that there are more negative externalities associated with bonding than with bridging: Specifically, too much bonding can lead to factionalism, exclusive groups, and policies based on mistrust. In a word, it can lead to tribalism.

Social media, which emphasizes connectivity based on people who share our preferences, encourages bonding, at the expense of bridging – studies of “red feeds” and “blue feeds” on social media illustrate how ideas can ricochet within a political social media “bubble” without ever crossing over into another, separate bubble – unlike how political discourse might operate in an organic environment in real life.

Further, Putnam underscores that virtual media doesn’t allow for the exchange of important social cues – like facial expression, emotions, and other nonverbal behavior – which are indispensable for creating trust among individuals who interact in person.

How does all of this relate to the rule of law? With Americans spending an average of six and a half hours a day online – about a third on social media – virtual bubbles, rather than real relationships formed with real people, can become our reality. This tribalism can impact how individuals perceive our civic institutions, which include those that uphold the rule of law: As noted previously, decreased civic engagement is associated with low social trust – which offers a fertile mindset for believing that public servants, judges, and law enforcement are untrustworthy, biased, and even corrupt.

Recent statistics suggest that Americans’ commitment to rule of law values has in fact eroded significantly. Professor Austin Sarat at Amherst College notes that 38% of people surveyed in 2017 trust the president, more than judges, to make the right decision for the United States.

The statistics are even more alarming when broken down by generation: Another study found that less then 33% of millennials agreed with the idea that it “is essential to live in a democracy,” compared with 72% of Americans born before World War II. And only 19% of millennials believe that a military takeover of the government would be illegitimate, compared to 43% of older generations.

In short, as Americans have become less civically engaged over the last five decades, they have also formed less of the kind of bridging capital essential for connecting people across diverse groups based on shared democratic ideals, including the rule of law. Instead, Americans have, with the help of social media, retreated into tribes – and, in particular, “political tribes” – which has essentially made Russia’s job to foment division among Americans and sow mistrust in our institutions that much easier.

Effectively protecting against Russian disinformation must include a strategy to increase social trust and reestablish the democratic values and principles that transcend tribal divisions.

III: Strategies to defuse disinformation

The challenge we face as we regroup from the Russia’s disinformation campaign in 2016 is how to revitalize civic engagement in a digital world. Ideally, of course, Americans would decrease their social media usage and make a conscious effort to create bridging capital by participating in community, civic, and religious organizations as they did in the early part of the 20th century. But given that social media has become an entertainment and communication staple for many people – combined with the fact that such platforms are designed to keep people on them as long as possible – any solutions must either be created alongside this facet of people’s lives, or use them as a vehicle to achieve democratic goals.

To this end, the following three proposals are starting points to strengthen civic values and create resilience in American society to disinformation targeting the rule of law and its institutions.

A. Prioritize Civic Education

In examining the decline in civic participation, Putnam observes that voluntary associations and churches were essentially “schools for democracy” and inculcated their members with civic skills such as “how to run meetings, speak in public, write letters, organize projects, and debate public issues with civility.” In the face of waning membership in such organizations, our schools have unfortunately not picked up the slack: Only nine states and the District of Columbia currently require a minimum of one year of education in U.S. government or civics, and ten states have no civics requirement at all.

One type of organization that can fill the gap is local, state, and national bar associations.  Members of the legal profession are ideally suited to be educators and disseminators of civic values for two reasons. First, as a profession, they have remained strong, particularly in an organizational form – unlike many other types of voluntary organizations, associations like the American Bar Association have actually increased their membership over the last several decades although they have not necessarily kept pace with growth of members in the profession itself.

Second, and more importantly, lawyers are trained to put higher principles above emotional, personal, and political beliefs. Defense lawyers, for instance, are proud to uphold and zealously defends their clients’ rights to due process and a fair trial, regardless of whether they personally believe in their innocence or guilt. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts embodied this recently in pushing back against President Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, declaring, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

Being able to articulate and appeal to these higher values is critical in today’s tribal politics. Studies show that once political tribalism takes hold, adopting the beliefs of the “tribe” becomes a way for members of the group to express their political identity and receive acceptance from other members of the in-group. In other words, if membership of party X is defined by opposition to the FBI or the free press, those who identify as party X will adopt, and rationalize, these positions as true even if there are facts demonstrating they are false (this is known as “directed motivated reasoning”).

Once adopted, moreover, such beliefs are very difficult to reverse. However, political scientists have found that appealing to civic values can help loosen and even transcend tribal ties: “When such civic-minded motivations are primed . . . people [are] more willing to adjust important attitudes (including partisan identification!) in response to new information.” Members of the legal profession have the skills to utilize a variety of avenues to pass on these values: lectures on important court cases; conferences on topics like the free press or the presidential power; sponsoring civic and community debates on public issues; and hosting mock trial and moot court programs in schools.

B. Use Civic Education as Entertainment

As noted above, one of the aspects of television that Putnam observed was most damaging to civic engagement was its role as a medium for entertainment. Social media undoubtedly exacerbates the tendency to rely on “screens” for entertainment, offering a seemingly endless rabbit hole for videos, pop culture news, and interactive games. One opportunity would be to use what Americans most seek and enjoy from social media as a vehicle for transmitting education about civics, democratic values, and government institutions.

At first blush this might seem like a trivialization of important concepts and principles. But it would not be the first time that civics would be presented as entertainment. From 1973 to 1985, ABC presented a series of videos called Schoolhouse Rock which originally presented jingles about math and grammar. To celebrate America’s bicentennial in 1976, however, Schoolhouse Rock included a season on American government, including songs about the Revolutionary War, the Preamble to the Constitution, the separation of powers, and the legislative process. (Many adults, this author included, still know the words to these tunes). More recently, the extraordinary success of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” suggests that complex ideas about the principles of government and democratic ideals can be presented in a way that is engaging to adults and children alike.

Social media companies have rightly been criticized for claiming a “content-neutral” stance when it comes to the ways their platforms have been exploited by foreign adversaries like Russia. But social media offers an ideal platform for updated versions of songs and videos like Schoolhouse Rock, since it lowers the cost for distribution and can be disseminated to an even broader audience than television. Social media companies could “promote” these videos in the same way they currently do for advertisements.

In a similar vein, companies like Facebook, which has a gaming platform with interactive games, polls, and quizzes, could introduce civic themes and that use the reward-oriented features of its algorithms to incentivize self-education. In doing so, social media companies can both counter disinformation on their platforms and bolster their credibility with their consumers by using their technology to actively promote democracy and its underlying values.

C. Create Local Organizations That Promote Civic Engagement

The intense public coverage of the investigation into Russian election interference and the politicization of the same has framed countering disinformation as a partisan issue. In fact, this very framing is what has encouraged U.S. pundits and politicians to attack law enforcement, the courts, and public servants – which only furthers Russia’s interests. The investigation into Russia’s past active measures efforts in 2016 and those who may have assisted them is separate and distinct from protecting the United States against Russia’s future attempts to sow chaos in the U.S. through disinformation. Underscoring that the latter is about preserving our democratic norms and principles, not about any particular political candidate or party, is a major obstacle to overcome

One approach to this challenge would be to create bipartisan organizations and alliances built on the support and promotion of shared civic values and democratic ideals, not party affiliation. Although several nonprofits and think tanks have emerged since 2016 with this mission, they have typically not been organizations based on active grassroots membership. Rather, these models are consistent with the model of voluntary organizations that have experienced growth over the past few decades: Most are “tertiary” associations, based on indirect support (like donations) or mail-in membership rather than local meetings that foster interaction with real people.

Organizations that seek to revitalize interaction among citizens and reverse the trends of declining social capital should return to an associational model that encourages local chapters, regular meetings, and grassroots initiatives.

One example of a successful organization is in this vein is Campus Compact, which promotes civic education and participation in community and government activities. In addition to its national presence, Campus Compact has local chapters which partner with colleges and universities to engage and maximize younger generations in its efforts.

Organizations with a mission of promoting democracy rather than supporting or contesting specific political policies can attract individuals who are both to the left and right of the political center, but are currently not aligned due to the tribalization of America’s discourse. This has the additional benefit of fostering bridging social capital by bringing individuals of different political stripes and even different generations under the same roof.


The framing of the Russian disinformation threat as a cybersecurity issue makes it tempting to look to the government, or to social media companies, to fix the problem. Regulatory and technological solutions are needed, and may well make it harder for Russia to employ the kinds of information warfare that it used in 2016. But they will not address the fundamental vulnerability which Russia successfully exploited, which is the increasing social and political fissures in society and the resulting erosion of social trust in the U.S. over the past decades.

A model to rebuild social capital in America – and strengthen social trust – can feel unsatisfying, since it is intangible, difficult to measure, and disperses responsibility on us, as citizens. At the same time, however, it can be empowering, as it offers a way for Americans to take ownership of a large part of the solution. Russia’s attack on our democracy is an invitation for us to examine our relationship with fellow citizens, and how technology has affected the way we engage with them online and in real life. By reclaiming democratic values that transcend political differences, and leveraging the most effective vehicles we have to disseminate them (including social media!), the U.S. can generate an immunity to Russia’s destabilization efforts which will endure over the long term.

Asha Rangappa is director of admissions and a senior lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where she teaches National Security Law and related courses. Asha graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in 1996, and from Yale Law School in 2000. In between, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Bogota, Colombia, where she studied Colombian constitutional reform and its impact on U.S. drug policy in the region. Following law school Asha served as a law clerk for the Honorable Juan R. Torruella, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She then joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a Special Agent, specializing in counterintelligence investigations in New York City from 2002 until 2005. Prior to joining Jackson, Asha was Associate Dean at Yale Law School.

[Image Credit: Oxford Internet Institute]

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