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Propaganda Interventions

By Jeffrey Howard

Embed from Getty Images

According to the recently released report by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, Russian nationals set up hundreds of social media accounts on Facebook and other sites during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. These were often created with fake identities and used to push divisive content, aimed at fomenting hatred and galvanizing support for Donald Trump. Here are just a few examples, documented by The New York Times:

Russia’s efforts to push disinformation were hardly confined to the United States, whose Global Engagement Center has actively pursued counter-propaganda initiatives across 25 countries to resist Russian efforts to manipulate political opinion. Approximately 241 million Europeans—roughly half of Europe—have likely received Russian disinformation in the past year alone. The material is not generic, but tailored to each country—pushing for Brexit in the UK, agitating against Macron in France, and whipping up anti-immigrant, pro-AfD sentiment in Germany. Russia has also seemingly deployed its disinformation efforts when interfering with internal conflicts in Ukraine, pushing a wide array of fallacious propaganda.

What, exactly, is wrong with the Russian government’s continued efforts to interfere in democratic political processes by surreptitiously flooding the public discourse with hateful and erroneous content? Our frustration with Russia’s meddling is, in the first instance, a matter of its substantive goals. Insofar as we defend the values of liberal democracy, and Putin is engaged in a self-described quest to render liberal values “obsolete” (as he recently noted), we decry his methods because we condemn his ends. But even if Russia were pursuing just outcomes as a matter of substance, we would likely still condemn its methods, for four reasons.

First, the propaganda peddles lies. It thereby violates the familiar moral prohibition against mendacious speech. Unless someone has done something to forfeit his right against being told the truth (as when a murderer is lied to when he asks where his intended victim is hiding), or there is some other compelling justification for dishonesty, lying is wrong, even if it were in the service of good substantive ends.

Second, propaganda undermines the preconditions of a healthy democracy. This is partly a function of its mendacity. In order for citizens to engage in moral deliberation about how to respond to the facts that define their common situation, they need to agree on what those facts actually are. By peddling falsehoods, Russian propaganda erodes a common reservoir of factual knowledge, and so impairs successful democratic deliberation between citizens. Beyond that, by inciting hatred and whipping up anger, the propaganda exacerbates tribal attitudes of animosity and contempt, moving citizens to view those with whom they disagree as irredeemable enemies to be vanquished—hardly the atmosphere of mutual respect in which successful conversation can occur.

Third, those exposed to Russian propaganda seldom realize that it is, in fact, Russian. The Russian state conceals the source of its propaganda, using fake accounts with names like “South United” or “Army of Jesus” (see above images). Of course, sometimes in life it is permissible to conceal one’s identity; think of a whistleblower contacting a journalist, or a vulnerable employee reporting a complaint about someone with significant power at her company. But one must have a good reason for doing so, and one must have especially good reason for lying about one’s identity. People have good reason to want to know the source of what they see so that they can appraise its credibility. Denying them this information, or misleading them about it, in a high stakes political context wrongly puts one’s audience at a serious epistemic disadvantage.

Fourth, insofar as the Russian disinformation efforts aim to assist one side in a democratic election, they raise concerns about electoral fairness. We should be skeptical toward propaganda that functions as an unreported in-kind campaign contribution to one side in an impending electoral race. This is not because of its foreign provenance, but because of basic concerns of electoral fairness that also militate against domestic interests (e.g., massive corporations) rigging the process with money by ensuring that voters only see advertisements that support one side.

There is, finally, what many will see as the most fundamental objection to Russia’s interference in the democratic debates of other countries: it is none of its business. This concern is largely independent of the others. Even if Russian propaganda were transparent about its identity, and even if it communicated truths rather than falsehoods, we would still likely balk at the very idea of a foreign government attempting to shape the political outcomes of another country. The basic principle that democratic states are sovereign and self-determining seems to militate against such intervention.

If I am right that Russian propaganda efforts are morally troubling for at least these five reasons, it is tempting to conclude that it is always objectionable for one country to try to intervene in public opinion in another country. But notice that many of the reasons I have offered have nothing to do with the idea of foreign intervention. Pursuing unjust ends, lying, inciting hatred, concealing one’s identity, and making unauthorized in-kind campaign contributions are wrongful completely independently of the fact that these are done by one country meddling in another.

So consider the following thought experiment:

A group of Scandinavian governments who rightly oppose gun violence in American schools, made possible by lax gun laws, transparently invest in thousands of targeted Facebook ads, which communicate important facts and advance reasonable arguments to Americans citizens about why they should reconsider their stance on guns and demand that current legislators take action.

“Love not war”, James Manners. Used under: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Do we think that this is objectionable? There is no pursuit of substantively unjust ends; on the contrary, the ends are substantively just. There is no lying. There is no incitement of hatred. There is no intervening in an impending electoral contest (and so no worries about campaign finance impropriety). But one country is systematically attempting to influence public opinion in another country. Would anything be morally objectionable about that?

Perhaps one might still be inclined to say yes, simply on the grounds that Scandinavians should mind their own business. But why isn’t the deaths of innocent children their business? If they reasonably believe that getting involved could make a positive difference, they might not simply think it permissible to get involved; they may think it is required to get involved, to do what they can to rescue others. Sure, the ideals of democratic self-determination and national sovereignty condemn foreign military intervention except when necessary to stop heinous injustices—the sort of crimes against humanity that, in the words of Michael Walzer, “shock the conscience of mankind”. But it is not plausible that such a high bar applies to interventions that merely take the form of speech.

This seems especially true in contexts of failed states, subject to civil wars. Consider ISIS, which has routinely marshalled online propaganda to recruit locals to support its terrorist projects in Iraq and Syria. It is not obviously objectionable for external governments to push communications that aim to counter ISIS’s propaganda. This is exactly the kind of work that appears to be undertaken by the U.S. State Department’s secretive Global Engagement Center, tasked with “leading the U.S. government’s efforts to counter propaganda and disinformation from international terrorist organizations and foreign countries”, which aims “to drive a wedge between susceptible audiences and those nations, groups, and terrorists seeking to influence them.” In recent years, the Center’s so-called “counter-propaganda” activities have engaged in “messaging on effective themes, such as exposing ISIS’s financial and governance failures; its violence against women, children, and religious minorities; and its ongoing territorial losses.” Even if the Iraqi or Syrian governments did not countenance these interventions into the public discourse of their countries, would this fact alone make such efforts wrong? I doubt it.

Still, there is room for caution here. We should not get too enthusiastic about condoning the systematic attempt by states to influence the policy discourses of other states—even if such attempts are conducted honestly and for just purposes. There is a long history of state intervention in other states’ affairs, and the overwhelming preponderance of it has been morally nefarious. We have every reason to be skeptical about any attempts of one country to alter public opinion in other countries, simply based on historical experience.

Indeed, there may be good sense in an international prohibition, as a matter of legal practice, on the deployment of digital propaganda, simply because its use by the good guys (as it were) is bound to increase the likelihood of its use by the bad guys. Indeed, insofar as the legal rules of international conflict remain guided by traditional just war theory, the prevailing norm that weapons available as a matter of jus in bello should be symmetrically available to all—regardless of who is in the right as a matter of jus ad bellum—should make us deeply suspicious about encouraging the widespread adoption of digital propaganda as a core tactic of foreign policy. But that is not, I have argued, because it is necessarily wrong; we can think of cases when it wouldn’t be. These cases are simply few and far between.


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.

Published 2nd August 2019

Jeffrey Howard

Lecturer in Political Theory, University College London

Dr Jeffrey Howard is a Lecturer in Political Theory at University College London. His current research examines free speech and its limits in the digital era, investigating how best to combat expression that incites violence, spreads dangerous lies, and inflames hatred. He is also working on the ethics of incarceration and the proper purpose of criminal punishment. He has previously published on such topics as the ethics of paying ransoms to terrorists, the moral limits of sting operations, and the justification of democracy. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, his research has been funded by the British Academy, which also awarded him its Rising Star Engagement Award. He is a BBC New Generation Thinker.