In a new piece for Foreign Policy, Henry Farrell examines the state of American democracy in terms of its susceptibility to misinformation, paranoia, and foreign cyberattacks. As many consider how to respond to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Farrell argues that, “If it is as easy to compromise democracy as Americans now fear, punishment-based approaches are likely to end up as gigantic games of whack-a-mole. Instead of looking to punish attackers, policymakers need to start thinking about strengthening the system of democracy itself.”
Specifically, Farrell argues that a key reason for the success of the misinformation aimed at the U.S. – especially when compared with those launched during last year’s French and German elections – lies in a crisis of democratic knowledge:
“Russian online influence operations nonetheless seem to be working better against the United States than other countries. Research suggests that Russia’s ‘MacronLeaks’ operation was far more successful in attracting the attention of English-speaking alt-right activists than French voters. Germany, too, seems to have been better able than the United States to shrug off efforts to shape its political conversation.
Russia’s relative success in the United States is not thanks to the unique strategic insight of Putin. It is because Russian operatives have chanced upon real weaknesses in U.S. democracy, and American elites are unintentionally giving them a helping hand. While France and Germany have their own social divisions, they do not face the specific problems that America faces.
In America, more than in most other Western countries, there is a basic failure of democratic knowledge. In a well-functioning democracy, citizens agree broadly on facts and have some trust in the democratic system, allowing democracy to harness different perspectives and put them to good use. In America, in contrast, distrust and profound disagreements over facts have led to a kind of crisis of democratic knowledge that leaves democracy open to outside manipulation.”