CyberNews Briefs

Information Attacks on Democracies

A recent academic paper titled “Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy” aims to provide an explanation for why certain Internet disinformation attacks have significant destabilizing effects in the US, while strengthening the internal stability in Russia.

The authors propose that in order to understand this phenomenon, it is important to look at how the political systems in the US and Russia function as systems of information. “If we treat national political regimes as information systems, we can better understand their attack surfaces and threat models,” the paper states. The researchers believe that a key difference between authoritarian states like Russia and democratic countries like the US is how each system deals with two types of information, namely ‘common political knowledge’, i.e. the information most citizens agree upon, and ‘contested political knowledge,’ i.e. information that is subject to widespread disagreement in society.

The authors argue that in democracies, common political knowledge is required regarding the basic functioning of the government and the electoral process, while contested political knowledge applies to specific policy ideas as well as to long term ideas about who ought to be the dominant actors in politics. This makes democracies “vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge. If people disagree on the results of an election, or whether a census process is accurate, then democracy suffers.”

The situation in authoritarian regimes is vastly different, because contested political knowledge relating to policies and individual leaders are actively oppressed, while contested political knowledge about nongovernmental actors is spread by governments to undermine the efforts of democracy activists and other threats to the regime. As a result, authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to attacks that “challenge their monopoly on common political knowledge,” as well as to attacks that “turn contested political knowledge—uncertainty about potential adversaries of the ruling regime, their popular levels of support and their ability to form coalitions—into common political knowledge.”

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