Should democracies ever lie? | Lowy Institute

Should liberal democracies ever tell lies?

This is one of the questions raised by reports that Facebook and Twitter recently took down a network of accounts, originating in the United States, which “covertly sought to influence users in the Middle East and Asia with pro-Western perspectives on international politics, including the invasion of Ukraine by Russia”.

Growing awareness of state-sponsored disinformation has prompted the West to call for rediscover the dark arts of information. For example, Robert Gates, the former US Secretary of Defense and longtime CIA officer, argues that:

“Russia…mounted sophisticated hacking and disinformation campaigns to interfere in the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK, the 2016 presidential election in the US and the 2017 presidential election in France . The United States has the same technologies; it just lacks a strategy to apply them.

But the myth of adroit American information operations winning the Cold War is largely a myth. Thomas Ridd’s definitive study of information warfare, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, shows that US interference in disinformation has had very limited reach and effects. He concludes that “for liberal democracies…being the recipients of active measures will undermine democratic institutions – and yielding to the temptation to design and deploy them will have the same result. It is impossible to excel in disinformation and democracy at the same time.

Ever since humans have fought, denial and deception have been part of warfare.

Canberra seems to agree. On February 22, the Ministry of Defense issued an unusually detailed press release describing the Chinese PLA Navy’s “lasing” of an Australian P-8A Poseidon, which ended with the statement that “Australia does not engage in the dissemination of false information or disinformation.”

But is it completely true? Ever since humans have fought, denial and deception have been part of warfare. Another dramatized film, Ground Meat Operation, just released and tells the true story of Britain’s brilliant use of a fake dead British officer to deceive the Germans in 1943. It would be surprising if Ukraine’s successful information operations were all strictly truthful. During a conflict, Australians would expect Defense Information Warfare Division be equally creative.

So maybe the answer is that liberal democracies can lie in war but never in peacetime.

A Ukrainian tank driver on the front line in the Donetsk region on August 19 amid the Russian invasion (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

But what about the “grey area”? Most definitions of this dark zone between peace and war place information warfare in the middle. The term is central to Australia Defense Strategy Update 2020 (although it was not mentioned in the 2016 Defense White Paper). The gray area encompasses Chinese maneuvering for strategic advantage in the Australia region; its progressive militarization of contested features of the South China Sea, its efforts to gain a military foothold in the Southwest Pacific, and the PLA’s tightrope control on water and in the air.

This competition has spilled over into the news space as Australia and China advance conflicting accounts of dangerous encounters, like the incident in February. This is the context of the unusually explicit assertion by the head of the Australian Air Force, Air Marshal Robert Chipman, that Chinese anti-aircraft capabilities in the South China Sea cannot “means you cannot provide military effects to achieve your interests when operating against China.”

How should liberal democracies engage in information warfare? Should they limit themselves to truth, public diplomacy and transparency campaigns. Or is twisting the truth sometimes necessary and justified?

There are no easy answers to such questions, but these are the ones Australia will have to grapple with more often, especially as China becomes more assertive in Australia’s physical and informational space. .

There is no evidence that the accounts suspended by Facebook and Twitter for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” were spreading fake news, but they used “fake personas” and posed as “independent media”. Is there a significant difference? If not, how can covert action be justified?

And what about cyber? Is there a valid distinction between disinformation and offensive cyber operations? These range from industrial sabotage to the more subtle manipulation of data. The Australian Signals Directorate’s offensive cyber capability will triple in size over the next 10 years. Although the primary purpose of this capability is to support Australian Defense Force operations, its use is not limited to wartime.

Clearly, liberal democracies should, as Ridd advises, resist the temptation to spread disinformation in situations other than war. But in escalating competition without war, it’s not hard to imagine situations in which the benefits of such action might outweigh the costs. For example, what if decisive Chinese action in the South China Sea or against Taiwan could be prevented by spreading fake news or covertly amplifying a true story?

There are no easy answers to such questions, but these are the ones Australia will have to grapple with more often, especially as China becomes more assertive in Australia’s physical and informational space. . Without a strategic compass, Canberra could be guided by tactical needs and bureaucratic imperatives. To avoid this, Australia and other liberal democracies should think about and develop a more coherent concept for information operations.

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