Inattentiveness to accessible digital literacy education and stay-at-home orders set in place during the COVID-19 pandemic left many around the world spending more time at home and online than ever before. In light of this surge of online activity, the urgency of accessible digital literacy education and informational materials signaled an opportunity for the bolstering of public safety against social media-based foreign disinformation campaigns. At this point in time, successful disinformation campaigns present far-reaching implications for the future of great power competition. While in their essence foreign disinformation campaigns pre-date the pandemic, heightened social media activity at the height of lockdown, compounded by the delicate state of societal cohesion in many Western states during this period, set the stage for more favourable outcomes for such campaigns. This piece will unpack and endeavor to better understand four case studies of foreign disinformation in Western countries in recent history: the Brexit referendum vote of 2016, the 2016 American presidential election, the 2018–2019 disinformation campaigns targeting Northern Ireland, and the 2020 disinformation campaigns in the United States concerning COVID-19 public health and vaccination mandates.
Against the backdrop of an ongoing struggle for hegemonic power, foreign disinformation campaigns deployed by Russia are emblematic of soft power diplomatic strategies for the delegitimization of Western democracy. The case for Russian resurgence should come as no surprise to those well-versed in the history of great power competition, and Russian foreign policy. The retreat of the former hegemonic contender following the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the Cold War in 1989 was emblematic of a state seeking to bide its time to “regain” its strength. The growing body of literature on the correlation between cognitive theory, psychology, and success with foreign disinformation campaigns points to the marked decline in traditional media viewership and engagement as a leading factor. This transfer of engagement and viewership from traditional media sources to social media platforms has accelerated the advent of information dissemination silos; wherein the sort of information readily accessible to any one person is now a function of algorithmic preferences, and not the urgency or accuracy of the information disseminated.
To situate this reality within the context of great power competition, the latest string of soft power disinformation attacks from 2015 onwards have signaled to the United States and its Western allies the Kremlin’s intentions to reclaim its place as a contender to the new world order, emerging from its position within the declining hegemonic structure. At present, Russia retains the advantage in cyber warfare and cyber diplomacy. This is partially due to the reluctance of many Western states to mobilize digital literacy capacity-building supports (i.e., distribute online safety materials, mobilize safeguards on the policy front to protect netizens) to curb vulnerability to such campaigns. Such strategies are vital to regaining and rebuilding social welfare, community, and in turn trust in public institutions and authority figures. Concerning the future of democracy, studies have identified a strong relation between the prosperity of democratic institutions and strong social capital (i.e., social cohesion). Social networks are crucial for political information flows, as people are most likely to discuss politics informally amongst friends, family, and their circles of proximity. States with high domestic social capital, like Finland, enjoy a higher probability of producing innovative and effective policies. The Finnish Maternity Grant is exemplary of this sort of progressive public policy: the program began as part of a government-led initiative to curb infant mortality and has since become a symbol of government efforts to combat social inequality.
Efforts to fuse social media platforms to the fabric of society have solved the long-standing issue of scale concerning disinformation campaigns. In past efforts, the success of a campaign was hampered by the orchestrator’s inability to engage a prospective target audience in a manner as intimate and constant as with social media. In the case of the campaigns which targeted the Brexit referendum vote, the key demographics of interest were minority populations and separatist groups who may have, at times, felt on the fringe of British society. Here, the main objective concerned the promotion of internal division to diminish Britain’s position on the world stage. In this regard, the outcomes brought on by the strategic disruption of information flows in both the Brexit vote and the 2016 American presidential elections renewed concerns over media literacy and its necessity for both political representatives and the public alike.
The disinformation campaign which set precedence for investigating Russian interference in Western elections targeted the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party during the 2016 American Presidential elections. It sought to skew election results in favour of the Trump campaign and the GOP by suppressing the Democratic vote. This string of attacks focused on exploiting existing points of social polarity, most notably the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the Blue Lives Matter movement which emerged in response. According to data released by a Senate Committee investigation, 81 Facebook pages leading the campaigns were traced back to the Internet Research Agency, 31 of these accounts catered to an explicitly African-American audience and accrued 1.2 million followers, and 25 pages catered to the political right, gaining a following of 1.4 million. The legacy of these campaigns was imbued in the surge of hate crimes that would follow Trump’s election. Consequently, the marked spike in party politics with such slogans as Make America Great Again endorsed patriotic sentimentality at the expense of American ethnic minority demographics.
The social climate that led to such an outcome is not endemic to the American context, as until the 2016 referendum, the withdrawal of any member state from the European Union was unprecedented. However, the European Union’s immigration policies served as prime incentive for Britain’s exit with cited concerns over its own economic future. Two competing views would emerge on the matter: the “stay” campaign felt remaining in the European Union would assure Britain’s economic future, while the “leave” campaign felt economic prosperity lay on the other side of Brexit. With respect to the state of social cohesion in the period that followed the Brexit referendum, political attitudes shifted to reflect Brexit impressions more than historic party alignment. In many towns formerly home to large industry activity, hostile sentiments toward immigrants and ethnic minorities were reflected in the Brexit vote results, according to regional analysis. This was attributed to a construct known as affective polarisation: where socially segregated groups are motivated by attitudes of distrust and dislike harboured against groups whose attitudes and beliefs they perceive as opposite to their own. Following the referendum vote, Britain experienced an uptick in cautious optimism, primarily among supporters of the “leave” campaign, who felt a departure from the European Economic Zone would bring about a renewed sense of security and autonomy to the nation.
However, the outcome of the EU referendum vote cast a cloud of uncertainty on Northern Ireland’s future as part of the United Kingdom. Available data shows that 56% of the Northern Irish population voted in favour of remaining in the European Union. A post-Brexit Northern Ireland has become particularly vulnerable to foreign disinformation attacks that may target this ordeal and existing sentiments of discontent with the success of the “leave” campaign, with the profound risk of reigniting calls for nationalism. The Northern Irish Protocol has experienced several setbacks during the negotiations process: trade flow complications in the Irish Sea led many firms on the British mainland to indefinitely halt trade with the province, while measures that would ease these strains have been stalled. The situation, much like the referendum itself, is unprecedented and the way forward remains uncertain. These continued complications will no doubt translate to public frustration, cultivating the sort of social climate that might fuel future foreign disinformation attacks. More to the point, this cycle of foreign disinformation campaigns seeks the erosion of the trinity of trust: social trust, trust in authorities, and the democratic system. The disinformation campaigns which targeted Northern Ireland aimed to discredit the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in hopes this would influence a stalemate in Brexit negotiations concerning the post-Brexit relationship between Northern Ireland and the British mainland; with broader implications for the province’s trade relationship with the European Union.
In the case of the United States, the scale and method of the disinformation attacks leveled against the public in both the 2016 and 2020 Presidential campaigns accelerated the erosion of social trust. Each campaign served the long-term objective of inciting civil discontent, polarity, and general mistrust among “outgroups”. While publicly available reports on the Brexit vote disinformation campaigns proport a marginal degree of similarity to the campaign deployed in the United States, this desire to delineate one case from the other negates the central concern, as both states were rather ill-equipped to handle such aggressive and invasive campaigns.
Northern Ireland’s fate as a province of the United Kingdom remains uncertain for the moment, with the state of diplomatic relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland hanging in the balance as a result. I would propose the end goal for the Kremlin – for this case – to be a tripartite breakdown of diplomatic relations between Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland. An unstable domestic climate, and a spell of unsuccessful foreign policy mandates – as would be the case should relations with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland sour – for America’s strongest ally across the pond would benefit the Kremlin’s aspirations both in Europe and beyond. Future disinformation campaigns might seek to affect public attitudes in Northern Ireland on the ongoing Protocol. In London, despite the veiled rhetoric meant to divorce the case of Britain from the current (less than ideal) American reality, the United Kingdom may well suffer a very similar fate in the not-so-distant future. While polarity in this case is captured in Brexit partialities as opposed to party politics, each case possesses its own set of vulnerabilities.
The growing sentiment of populism around the world, particularly in Great Britain and the post-Trump America, holds grave implications for the future of Great Power politics, as demonstrated through the January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol Hill. Disinformation campaigns of such sophistication and precision may well be the silver bullet that unseats the United States as hegemon. Of late, the United States has taken on the image of a weakening democracy and a declining hegemon marred by violence and self-inflicted turmoil. The events on the Capitol led observers to question the hegemon’s moral authority and leadership on the world stage. What can be gleaned from American foreign-policy mandates in light of such contentious domestic realities? While no one can say for certain who will act as successor to the reigning American hegemon, the U.S. appears to be a once Great Power on its way out. The series of events catalyzed by the first known disinformation campaign in the United States – dramatic and unprecedented – sent shockwaves through American legislative and executive branches of government. An already delicate circumstance which was then aggravated by media reporting which leaned into the narrative of division. As political sociology scholar Robert Putnam has argued, social capital, trust, and cohesion lie at the heart of any great society, and disinformation campaigns that target social media play an outsized role in destroying these critical values.
Lesley Isaro is an independent researcher, and public policy enthusiast. At present, she supports the G7 Research Group at Trinity College as a compliance analyst. She holds an HBA in Global Development Studies from the University of Toronto.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities she represents.