A Digital Cold War

A battle over the balance of power in the world is happening on your social media feed

The cover Tyrants on Twitter by David Sloss. Image courtesy the author.
The cover Tyrants on Twitter by David Sloss. Image courtesy the author.

Misinformation, bots, and trolls have flooded our digital spaces, dividing Americans into polarized camps, muddling the real issues, and putting our very democracy at risk. Some of it is driven by foreign actors pushing for a new world order—one that favors authoritarian states. It’s a bit of a digital cold war, says Santa Clara Law Professor David Sloss in his new book Tyrants on Twitter. Santa Clara Magazine talked with Sloss about what’s at stake and how democracies can gain the upper hand.

Santa Clara Magazine: Your book describes the global divide as a struggle for power and influence between democracies and more repressive forms of government. It feels very Cold War but with different weapons: Instead of nuclear or conventional weapons, we’re fighting with digital tools. How did we get here?

David Sloss:  If you turn the clock back to 1990, then you see the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. There was a lot of optimism. People believed that liberal democracy was going to spread all over the world and that we’d have a new era of global cooperation. Well, that didn’t happen.

From 1990 until about 2008, we did see a steady rise in the number of countries that qualified as liberal democracies.

But that hit a peak around 2008 or 2009. And now we are seeing a reversal. The number of liberal democracies is declining, and the percentage of authoritarian states is on the rise.

I don’t think we’re seeing the end of democracy in the world. I believe we are seeing a long period where democracies and authoritarian states will coexist. There is going to be an ongoing battle where both sides are pushing the international system in different directions.

For example, Russia and China—which I think most people agree are not going to become liberal democracies anytime soon—are pushing the international system in a direction that is more illiberal. They want an international order that is more hospitable to authoritarian states and less friendly to democratic states. Information warfare fits into that.

SCM: How is modern information warfare different from, say, the American radio service Voice of America or even explicit propaganda efforts from decades past

Sloss:  The technology has changed. It’s become much, much easier for states and state-related actors to influence the information environment in other states.

What is going on with China right now is sort of Voice of America on steroids. It’s partly the technology and partly that China has made a huge investment in global information operations. China sees this as a very important element of the broader geopolitical competition.

China has spent billions to increase its capacity to influence the information environments in countries all over the world—in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. China is now using that network to propagate Russian disinformation about the war in Ukraine, for example.

SCM:  So states are using information—or misinformation—to influence people around the world. And these states are able to reach more people than ever, maybe in ways where those people don’t know they are consuming information from outside actors thanks to social media. But why does that control over information or influence over information environments matter more than it did in the Cold War?

Sloss: The information domain is much more significant now than it was 30 years ago. There are changes in technology, but there are also changes to the playing field.

The U.S. effectively won the Cold War against the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union was an economic basket case. They didn’t have a viable economic model. China does. We aren’t going to beat China economically the way we did with the Soviet Union.

And, for the same reasons that were true in the Cold War, no one wants to get into a major military conflict—it’s very costly. So that’s not an effective way to push the international system either. All of that puts a premium on competition in the information domain.

SCM: In your book, you talk about how this information playing field favors autocracies over democracies—since democracies value a free exchange of information. Could you explain how that works?

Sloss: We tend to think that having an open information environment is a virtue, right? And I think if you look at things in purely domestic terms, that is right. There are a lot of advantages to the U.S. approach, where we have an open information system, as opposed to the Chinese approach, where they have a closed information environment.

But if you look at this in terms of international competition, that changes. We really do have an uneven playing field because we can’t do to them what they’re doing to us.

The most notorious example, and still one of the best examples, is Russian intervention in the 2016 election in the United States. There are some very credible arguments that Russia may have actually swung that election in favor of Donald Trump.

Could we do the same thing to either Russia or China? No, we can’t. They have closed information environments, so it’s much, much more difficult for us to influence the domestic information environment in either China or Russia. And they don’t have free and fair elections, so we cannot really shape electoral outcomes because they don’t hold free elections.

They can influence our elections. They can influence our information environment. They can do this in ways we cannot do to them. So the question is, do we just live with that asymmetry, or do we try to find ways to reduce or reverse that asymmetry?

SCM: In the book, you propose ways to address the asymmetry—an alliance for democracy to tackle these problems on an international scale—and cut back fake accounts. How does this work?

Sloss:  The alliance for democracy would initially include 35 or 40 countries, all of which are liberal democracies, and they would collaborate in developing a transnational regulatory system for social media. It would be through an international agreement, but that agreement would largely be implemented by each state adopting its own domestic regulations.

The centerpiece of my proposal is that you would ban Chinese and Russian state agents from major social media platforms. As soon as you talk about a ban, some people in democracies will raise concerns about freedom of expression. It’s admittedly a hard sell. But it is worth it. It is necessary to even the playing field.

To be effective, in my view, what you need is a social media registration system so that everybody who maintains a public account on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., would have to register with certain identifying information about themselves, which gets passed to their governments who can confirm that this is a real person. The whole point is to make sure that there are no fake accounts created by, say, Russian agents. This wouldn’t apply to what I call private accounts.

Without that kind of registration system, it is basically impossible to do a meaningful job of shutting down fake accounts. Of course, when I talk about a registration system, lots of people start raising concerns about privacy. In the book, I explain in detail why the proposed registration system does not actually pose a significant risk to the privacy of social media users. Of course, people might still be suspicious that the registration system would infringe their privacy, and that suspicion or lack of trust is itself a problem.

SCM: Every decision or set of rules comes with trade-offs. But from where you stand, the threat to democracy domestically and to the international system is significant enough to consider these externalities.

Sloss: That’s exactly right. There’s a broad agreement that the quality of democracy in the United States has been declining over the last 10 or 15 years. The quality of democracy in many other liberal democracies has also been declining.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that information warfare is one of the more significant factors contributing to this global democratic decline that we’re seeing. The main purpose of my proposal is to limit the effectiveness of information warfare and hopefully reverse the process of democratic decline. I think most people would agree that is a very worthy goal.

I cannot guarantee that my proposal would make a big difference in reversing  democratic decline, but I think it’s worth trying.

SCM: This is one of those situations where you could try things or do nothing, and the outcome of those decisions could be pretty stark.

Sloss: Yes. The costs of my proposal are relatively low, but the potential benefits are great—preserving liberal democracies and a world order in which liberal democracies can flourish.

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