Malevolent soft power, AI, and the threat to democracy [REPOST]

Article by Elaine Kamarck courtesy of The Brookings Institute

In the space of less than a decade, the world of social media has gone from being an enabler of to a threat to democracy. While the internet can still mobilize large numbers of people to political action, it can also spew false information about candidates, suppress the vote, and affect the voter rolls and the election machinery of the state. By 2016, social media had become a weapon against democracy as opposed to a tool for democracy. Unless we are vigilant, the new world of artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to be an even more dangerous weapon in the years ahead. This paper will look at Russian interference in the 2016 election with an emphasis on intra-party disruption and then it will look at the ways in which AI can further disrupt democracy if we are not prepared.

The new technologies of the information age were heralded as invaluable instruments of democratic action because, in authoritarian countries, the regular media is under the control of the state, making the dissemination of negative information about the state and the publication of dissenting opinions all but impossible. When the “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia, it began with a group called Takriz that used new information technology to organize and eventually topple the country’s long-time president.[1]

But in the space of a few short years, the technologies that once promised a way to break the tyranny of state-sponsored media and circumvent bans on political protests became the tools of those who would seek to undo democracy in America and throughout the Western world. The Russian assault on the 2016 American presidential election and on democracy was enormous and unprecedented—and it continues in 2018. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the nation in July that “The warning lights are blinking red again,” a reference to the description of the intelligence climate prior to 9/11.[2]


The fact of Russian interference in the 2016 election is now well known in the United States. What is less well known is that the Russians have been at this in other countries; from elections in the Ukraine, to the Brexit vote in Great Britain, to Scotland, Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway and Spain.[3]

The purpose of Russian interference is deeper than simply attempting to move an election in a policy direction that would be preferable to Russia. After nearly two years of investigation we know that Russia’s goals are to destroy faith in democracy itself. They want to make citizens in democratic countries doubt the electoral system and they intervene in order to exacerbate a society’s differences by spreading malicious content. For instance, the assault on American democracy included not simply an assault on Hillary Clinton, the presidential candidate who, as a former Secretary of State had taken a tough stand toward Putin’s Russia, but it also included efforts to exacerbate the fault lines in American politics— especially race. Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) had it exactly right when he said at a recent Judiciary Committee hearing, “Russia does not have loyalty to a political party in the United States. Their goal is to divide us and discredit our democracy.”[4]

In thinking about this threat, it is important to differentiate what is going on now from what has happened in the past. For instance, there is nothing new about election chicanery. The presidential election of 1800, a tough battle between President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson (they didn’t run on a ticket in those days) set the standard for decency pretty low. Adams’ campaign warned that if Jefferson was elected, “our wives and daughters would be the victims of legal prostitution,” and Jefferson’s campaign accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character.”[5]

Nor is there anything new about foreign intervention in American political campaigns. In fact, the Founding Fathers were obsessed with the topic, which led to the inclusion of the emoluments clause in the Constitution. The world’s two superpowers at the time had definite preferences between the candidates. France preferred Jefferson’s party; England preferred Adams’ party.

In light of this well-documented history, Russian interference is not that unusual. Russia has had a distinct set of policy preferences centered on the lifting of sanctions imposed on them by the U.S. government after their takeover of Crimea. They have also had a long-time interest in weakening the NATO alliance and, through it, America’s role in the world. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was one of the more hawkish members of the Obama Administration when it came to the “Russian reset.” Putin is known to hate her for her criticisms of the 2011 Russian elections and to blame her for instigating the demonstrations that followed them.[6] Throw into the mix a heavy dose of misogyny on the part of Putin and his regime, and it is easy to understand why Putin did not want Hillary Clinton to become president.[7]

Russian attitudes toward Trump are also understandable. As far back as 1987, Trump took out full-page ads in three national newspapers, in which he argued for what would become the root of his “America First” foreign policy.[8] The foreign policy pronouncements of a real estate developer would probably not normally draw the attention of a foreign government, but by 2015, Trump’s long shot candidacy had become far more realistic. As a candidate, Trump was as pleasing to the Russians as Hillary was disagreeable. On issue after issue, Trump diverged from long-standing American foreign policy consensus on issues that Russia cared about. While Trump had very little interest in the Republican Party platform being written in the summer of 2016, the one place his campaign intervened was to water down support for U.S. assistance to the Ukraine.

It is one thing for a foreign power to want the outcome of an election to coincide with their policy preferences. It is another thing for a foreign power to try to undermine, sow distrust, and create confusion with regard to the very foundations of a nation. The 2016 election ushered in a new era in election meddling—an era dedicated not just to helping elect one party or the other, but an era dedicated to disrupting democracy itself.

Most attention has been paid to Russian efforts to help Donald Trump and the Republican Party. But there is another story that is just as, if not more disturbing: The fact that Russians also intervened in 2016 to suppress the vote amongst African-Americans and to alienate Bernie Sanders’ voters from Hillary Clinton.


In 2004, my colleague at Harvard and former dean, Joe Nye, wrote a famous book called “Soft Power.” So-called hard power is the power we are all familiar with—the epitome of which is military power. The United States has been the undisputed master of military power in the world for some decades now. But there are real limits to the use of hard power. Thus, as Nye defined it, there is another side of power—soft power, which is “getting others to want the outcomes that you want.” Soft power, according to Nye, “co-opts people rather than coerces them.”[9] What the Russians accomplished in the 2016 presidential election was the malevolent use of soft power.

The right to vote, taken for granted by so many Americans, is, for African-Americans the result of a long and bloody struggle. They have been beaten and lynched for trying to vote. They have been subjected to a variety of impediments from poll taxes to literacy tests. In spite of passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, in spite of the civil rights movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African-Americans still face challenges in exercising their right to vote. Some states have cut back on early voting, others have required a government-issued ID to vote. Still others have disenfranchised citizens for felony convictions. All of these restrictions hit the African-American population disproportionately.

In modern America, old-fashioned racism combines with partisan interests. Beginning with the Great Depression and accelerating into the civil rights movement, African-American voters moved out of the party of Lincoln and became the most loyal voting block in the Democratic Party. In each of the five presidential elections in the 21st century, African-Americans have given an average of 90 percent of their vote to the Democratic candidate for president—a pattern repeated in many other elections in the United States.[10]

Slavery, of course, has been called America’s original sin. And the Russians have been exploiting it as far back as the Cold War. “Covert influence campaigns don’t create divisions on the ground, they amplify divisions on the ground,” according to Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA.[11] Which is exactly what the Russians have done with regards to race relations in the United States for many years. In 2016, they used new technologies to suppress the African-American vote. While there are undoubtedly many contributing factors in addition to Russian interference, 2016 did see a significant decline in the black vote as the chart below, derived from Pew Research, indicates.

Reported voter turnout rate in the 2016 election

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Source: Pew Research, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, November 2016 and earlier years.

When we break turnout down by state, an even more interesting picture emerges. Black turnout decreased the most in two of the three states Hillary Clinton was supposed to win but lost by narrow margins: Michigan, where the drop-off in black turnout was a whopping 12.4 percent, and Wisconsin, where the drop-off was 12.3 percent. The other close state was Pennsylvania, where the drop-off was 2.1 percent.[12] In Michigan and Wisconsin, the simple difference between the vote share won by Barack Obama in 2012 and the share won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 tells a dramatic story. The following table shows the raw votes for Clinton and Trump by state, the margin of victory that Trump won by, and the difference between Barack Obama’s vote in 2012 and Hillary Clinton’s vote in 2016 in key counties.