President Joe Biden will convene the inaugural Summit for Democracy in early December. His administration intends the gathering to signal the end of the era of democratic backsliding and creeping authoritarianism ushered in by its predecessor and to insist to the world that the United States—with its steadfast moral convictions and values and its exemplary status as a “city upon a hill” after which other countries can model themselves—is back.

The summit was one of Biden’s earliest and most concrete foreign policy proposals. He spoke about it when campaigning for the presidency. It represents an opportunity to build and reinvigorate critical coalitions and alliances that the Trump administration allowed to deteriorate. The meeting need not be purely symbolic; it can lead to cooperation around fighting the corrupting influence of foreign flows of money and to the creation of economic groups meant to counterbalance authoritarian adversaries, such as China and Russia. To be successful, the summit should generate meaningful commitments from those in attendance. But the most urgent issue on the agenda—the one needing the most dedicated international action—should be the foreign and domestic use of disinformation, or false or misleading information spread with malign intent. Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, after Russia used a hack-and-leak operation paired with an online influence campaign to try to swing the vote for Donald Trump, the phenomenon of disinformation has grown only wider, encompassing not just foreign online influence campaigns but those trafficked and amplified by elected U.S. officials. Disinformation is not just a partisan issue; it strikes at the connective tissue of democracy and should headline a summit meant to bolster democracies in perilous times.

MAKING TRUTH UNKNOWABLE

For years, authoritarian regimes, such as those in China and Russia, have used disinformation to strengthen their sway at home by, for example, releasing false stories through state-run media outlets and employing armies of online social media users and bots to give their policies the appearance of grassroots support. These malign actors have gradually started to use these tactics abroad, attempting to sway electoral contests and conflicts in Estonia, Georgia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and beyond. In its ability to manipulate and distort the narratives around elections, disinformation poses a tremendous threat to twenty-first-century democracies. More worryingly, politicians in both nascent and established democracies, including Hungary, Poland, and the United States, are using online, social media–enabled disinformation to target the most susceptible voters. Ultimately, as the journalist Peter Pomerantsev observed in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, disinformation seeks to make the truth unknowable and undermine public trust in the possibility of an established set of facts. With nothing certain, voters cannot have confidence in elections, the functioning of government, or the importance of their role in the democratic process. Democracy flounders without peaceful, rules-based participation in elections. The United States woke up to this reality when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, but the country has yet to address the use of disinformation with sufficient urgency within its borders or elsewhere. The summit is a chance to change that failing.

The United States has yet to address the use of disinformation with sufficient urgency.

The little that is publicly known about the summit’s agenda and guest list has inspired skepticism. The invitees include many traditional democratic allies and countries actively combating disinformation, such as France. The French government created a robust strategy to counter election interference in the wake of Russian interference in the U.S. election in 2016. During France’s 2017 presidential election, when the Kremlin unsuccessfully targeted the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, who would go on to win the presidency, it deployed new measures, including assigning independent, apolitical bodies to oversee election campaigning and monitor the integrity of the voting process. Yet France will attend the summit alongside several countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and India, that the nongovernmental organization Freedom House has labeled “partly free” or even “not free.” Many of these governments have actively used domestic disinformation campaigns against their own people. Addressing the inclusion of such countries on the summit’s guest list, the Biden administration insisted that an “inclusive, big tent approach” will help “galvanize democratic renewal worldwide.” But the summit will do little to achieve that goal if it does not address the systematic use of lies to influence elections, trick voters into compliance with disinformation campaigns, or indeed provoke them into a dangerous rage.

Recent reporting suggests that the administration may be considering introducing an initiative at the summit dubbed the “Alliance for the Future of the Internet” that would offer an alternative to the “vision of the Internet as a tool of State control promoted by authoritarian powers such as China and Russia,” according to a document obtained by Politico. This would represent a break from the optimistic, techno-utopian vision of the online world that prevailed in the 1990s and the first decade of this century and that failed to predict the ways the Internet could be used to divide and dupe people and incite violence. The idea behind the alliance would be to find agreement on important issues and principles, such as data privacy, shared cybersecurity standards, and platform interoperability (which, among other positives, would allow users to move their data easily between social media platforms should they choose to leave one). But without a more serious discussion about the ills of disinformation—which the document refers to under the bland rubric of “information integrity,” belying what a polarizing issue and bellwether for antidemocratic behavior disinformation has become—none of these principles are worth much. Disinformation must be recognized not as a niche issue but as the urgent problem that it is, one that fuels violent extremism, public health crises, discrimination, and democratic backsliding. Platform interoperability, better cybersecurity, and increased data privacy protections will get democratic activists only so far when their own governments are drawing from the authoritarian playbook to use online surveillance, microtargeting, and false messaging against their own citizens.

This has been the case in Brazil, Georgia, the Philippines, and Poland, where the ruling parties—and in some cases, government entities themselves—have used fake accounts to give the false impression that they enjoy substantial grassroots online support (a practice known as “astroturfing”), spread false or misleading stories disguised as news, and intimidate journalists, opposition activists, members of marginalized communities, and political figures by stoking online mobs against them. Some of these techniques are also common in the United States; during the 2020 election, opponents of then vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris spread unsubstantiated sexualized disinformation about her, including that she “slept her way to the top” and that she was secretly a man, among other grotesque allegations. A study I led at the Wilson Center found over 262,000 instances of gendered or sexualized falsehoods and abuse against Harris in the two months preceding the presidential election. To maintain the credibility of the United States and of the summit—and to attempt to address the increased use of disinformation around the world—the president must confront the issue honestly and head-on.

A BULWARK AGAINST DISINFORMATION

The summit can mark a good first step in wider efforts against disinformation. Democracies should form a bloc united against the use of disinformation by foreign powers. Such a bloc could be molded in the image of the solidarity achieved in the wake of the Kremlin’s poisoning of the former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom in 2018; for this explicit and gross violation of British sovereignty, British allies around the world coordinated the expulsion of hundreds of Russian diplomats from their countries. These countries also worked together to respond to the corresponding disinformation campaign the Kremlin launched to deny that it had poisoned Skripal with a military-grade nerve agent; the United Kingdom distributed fact sheets to allies and foreign policy and media influencers to use in their communications. This was the first such campaign to respond to foreign interference in a synchronized multilateral fashion. If Biden laid the foundation for a new counterinterference coalition at the summit, the next time countries such as China, Iran, or Russia attempted to influence an election or political event through spreading disinformation, the international democratic community could respond in harmony with diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, and other actions, increasing the cost to malign actors who seek to disrupt democracy. Governments in such places as Taiwan and Ukraine, which have long been bullied by prolific producers of disinformation, would welcome such a pledge.

Addressing foreign disinformation could also set in motion efforts to tackle the altogether more complex and entrenched problem of domestic disinformation, which often bumps up against the need to protect free expression, providing authoritarian governments cover to curb inconvenient speech in their own countries. Here, Biden could encourage the wider international adoption of the Pledge for Election Integrity spearheaded by the pro-democracy nonprofit Alliance of Democracies in 2019. Signatories promise to “not fabricate, use or spread falsified, fabricated, doxed, or stolen data or materials for disinformation or propaganda purposes; avoid the dissemination of doctored media that impersonate other candidates, including deep-fake videos;” practice good cyber-hygiene (ensuring that candidates, campaigns, and data about supporters are all safe from hacking operations); not use astroturfing to attack opponents; and maintain transparency in campaign funding.

Democracies should form a bloc united against the use of disinformation by foreign powers.

Biden is the only American politician to have signed the pledge—over 350 others signed in 2019, including politicians participating in elections for the European Parliament and in contests in Canada, Georgia, and Germany. The Biden administration should consider adding a clause to the agreement that would ask signatories to commit to not willfully undermining trust in the democratic process for political gain. After all, politically motivated disinformation about electoral fraud in the 2020 U.S. presidential election eventually inspired similar claims in the 2021 German parliamentary elections; the far-right party Alternative for Germany claimed that widespread mail-in voting would lead to fraud, a refrain that U.S. Republicans had popularized earlier. Although the claims did not gain broad purchase, the German example shows that politicians in established Western democracies are not below spreading disinformation for political gain. The Biden administration should treat as a matter of urgency the need to get attendees at the democracy summit to make a pledge to eliminate the scourge of domestic disinformation. This understanding would help set in place a standard that would allow international election observers to assess the use of domestic disinformation in elections at all levels, social media companies to make decisions regarding content moderation without being accused of political bias, and voters to confidently evaluate candidates.

Such a standard—which plainly names and describes disinformation as the democratic ill that it is—is necessary to proactively protect democracy against future harmful technological innovations. Technological advances often leave public policy behind; developing a common understanding of what constitutes disinformation, no matter the platform on which it appears, is paramount if democracies are to meet tomorrow’s challenges. In a world heading toward ever-greater technological and digital leaps, autocratic governments with nominally democratic institutions and processes, such as those in Brazil and the Philippines, cannot be allowed to benefit from the comfort of a “big democratic tent” while employing the same tactics pioneered by China and Russia on their own people. Disinformation ultimately erodes the faith of citizens in government and encourages them to doubt the possibility of truth in public life. Democracy will suffer hugely when citizens no longer trust or even want to participate in the democratic process.

Biden seems to understand this fateful prospect. During his inaugural address, delivered just weeks after the deadly January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he told the nation: “There is truth and there are lies—lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and a responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.” As Biden himself acknowledges, the summit is a critical chance not only to make up for five years of U.S. inaction in tackling disinformation but to aspire toward a firm new tone for politics in the digital age, reaffirming that a commitment to truth must form the bedrock of democracies.

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  • NINA JANKOWICZ is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and the author of the forthcoming book How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment and How to Fight Back.
  • More By Nina Jankowicz