Countering Authoritarian Interference in Democracies

Dr. Silas Lee
Professor of Sociology, Xavier University of Louisiana; President, Dr. Silas Lee & Associates

In January 2017, the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) released “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” its report evaluating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.  The report provided a strategic autopsy which explored the mechanics and escalation of cyber-espionage and covert operations orchestrated by a Russian-controlled propaganda apparatus. 

In 2018, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, an organization that conducts research and analysis on transatlantic issues, published “Policy Blueprint for Countering Authoritarian Interference in Democracies,” presenting the multi-institutional implications of social media chicanery.

After analyzing the contents of the two documents, I have identified six key themes which threaten our fealty to the spirit of democracy and social justice.  Additionally, these tactics seek to establish an authoritarian-democratic, white supremist regime by manipulating and dismantling access to the electoral process.     

  1. Last Place Aversion: The absence of oversight in social media and a polarized social environment have become fertile ground for extremists to exploit and manipulate the social divisions and economic anxiety of voters.  Since we are living in a contentious and suspicious environment of declining trust for many of the established social institutions, foreign social media interlopers nurtured the fears of citizens who feel that the American Dream of upward mobility has eluded them.  The accelerated pace of demographic and cultural changes is perceived as a threat to America’s future and a barrier to opportunities that were once easily accessible to them.

  2. Psychological Suppression: The tactics utilized by these foreign social media manipulators is what I would describe as political catfishing.  In social media, catfishing is a tactic used by predators who create a false persona to entice and entrap readers into a manipulative relationship.  For these political tricksters, they adopt the profiles of known personalities and influencers to infect the confidence of voters, thus suppress voter participation and engagement.

    By hijacking the mission of activist groups such as Black Lives Matter, elected officials and known personalities, they wove together a digital quilt of misinformation and confusion to depress trust, communication and participation in the political process.  This tactic was verified in an investigation by USA Today Network reporters who confirmed that of the 3,500 Facebook ads created by the Internet Research Agency, an internet troll agency based in Russia, 1,950 of those ads made references to race and exploited issues such as the NFL anthem protests.  The report also revealed these divisive racial ads averaged 44 per month and increased as the November election approached.

  3. Not Just an American Dilemma: The article is a warning that foreign interference in elections is not confined to America but a threat to all democracies.  Lacking the technical infrastructure and regulation to monitor their nefarious activities, the American electoral process remains exposed to further interference. These manipulators have their sights set on permanently impregnating the foundation of democracy with misinformation and distrust to activate voter suppression and non-participation. 

  4. Enhanced Resources: Curtailing foreign interference will require multi-institutional, public-private coordination and international cooperation and communication. Due to the fact that the international actors perpetuating this interference have unlimited resources, the United States and its allies must strategically commit to a long-term strategy with sufficient financial and technical resources to successfully neutralize this threat.

  5. Voter Fraud Does Not Exist: The myth of voter fraud is not supported by facts.  In “More UFO Sightings Than Voter Fraud,” a March 2012 article in Mother Jones magazine, the author revealed the following:

Between 2000 and 2010, there were:

  • 649 million votes cast in general elections;

  • 47,000 UFO sightings;

  • 441 Americans killed by lightning; and

  • 13 credible cases of in-person voter impersonation.

    Magnifying the voter fraud theme reinforces the post-slavery doctrine that African Americans are a menace to democracy and, therefore, must be controlled or excluded.

  1. Elections Have Consequences: Behind the mask of voter suppression exists the toxic drug of paralysis whose goal is to activate indifference and apathy in an attempt to convert the electoral process into a partisan activity for extremists.  By restricting voter participation, the antagonists of inclusion fulfill their deceitful goals under the disguise of democracy.

Voter suppression tactics impact more than the results of one election but the implementation of a leadership succession plan and policies contrary to our values and interests as a nation.  For example, since taking office, Donald Trump has nominated 177 individuals to federal judgeships, of which 91 have been confirmed to lifetime appointments.  Their potential decisions on cases involving voting rights, the environment, sexual assault, consumer protection and criminal justice—to name a few—can have vulgar implications on past progress and protections received for the next 40 to 60 years.

Finally, the continued interference by these authoritarian regimes has severe implications on communities of color and the historically disenfranchised.  By suppressing access to one of our basic civil rights, these foreign threats represent what I describe as “digital terrorists”, advocating the divisiveness and vitriol of social and political extremists.  They seek to maintain their illusion of demographic and cultural supremacy because of their fear of economic anxiety through psychological intimidation and legislative exclusion.

Stay Woke, America. Vote.

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