Action Plan for Resilience and Democracy
For several years, Western democracies in Europe and America have faced a growing barrage of digital attacks. Domestic and foreign players are using hybrid methods, such as cyberattacks, in an attempt to influence the public opinion-forming process in their favor and to weaken institutions, with the aim of inflicting lasting damage on democracy. If an answer to the new threats is not found in the near future, there is a risk that democracy will suffer irreversible damage.
This Action Plan is an edited and slightly updated translation of the German text that was originally published on September 20, 2021, as part of the DGAP Report Smarte Souveränität (“Smart Sovereignty”). It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” which is funded by Stiftung Mercator.
An English PDF of this text, including the infographics, can be found as a chapter in the DGAP Report “Smart Sovereignty.” Download the full report here.
Building Public Resilience
For several years, Western democracies in Europe and America have faced a growing barrage of digital attacks. Domestic and foreign players are using hybrid methods, such as cyberattacks, in an attempt to influence the public opinion-forming process in their favor and to weaken institutions, with the aim of inflicting lasting damage on democracy. The press, in particular, is coming under growing pressure due to the online services of major digital providers, and as a result is increasingly losing its ability to fulfil its traditional role. At the same time, some sections of the population have lost trust in the traditional media and are turning to alternative, online media services (such as Facebook, YouTube, and influencers).
The 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum are key events in recent years that have exposed the vulnerability of democratic societies to targeted disinformation and propaganda campaigns. These phenomena pose a threat to both the democratic opinion-forming process and the integrity of elections and votes.
If an answer to the new threats is not found in the near future, there is a risk that democracy will suffer irreversible damage
The massive wave of false information and conspiracy theories during the coronavirus pandemic has shown that times of crises in which hard facts are in short supply can also be deliberately exploited to spread uncertainty among the public, exacerbate social division, and undermine confidence in public measures to tackle the crisis. In other words, this not only has implications for democracy, but also for Germany’s internal and external security.
Finally, hacker attacks on public institutions (especially the German Bundestag) have been taking place for years; these attacks threaten their ability to function and capacity for action, and thus endanger democracy itself.
If an answer to the new threats is not found in the near future, there is a risk that democracy will suffer irreversible damage. Efforts must made to boost digital and democratic resilience within Germany and the EU, and to immunize Europe’s societies against attacks from within and without.
The complexity and multifaceted nature of the new threat landscape poses a particular challenge; it requires a wide range of stakeholders to work together at multiple levels and opens up a large number of potential fields for action. In a democratic state governed by law, democracy is the shared responsibility of policy-makers and society, the EU and the member states, business and consumers, and no single stakeholder can solve these problems alone.
Moreover, disinformation and propaganda are issues that touch on a gray area for freedom of information and opinion, which is essential in a democracy. A nuanced and tiered approach is therefore necessary to avoid unjustified interference in these liberties and prevent accusations of state censorship. Targeted government measures against specific content can therefore only be considered as a last resort, if at all.
Well over one third of the public now obtains political information from social networks. Since it came to light that third countries or private actors paid by them make targeted use of these platforms to spread disinformation and propaganda with the aim of undermining the public’s confidence in democracy, however, these networks have increasingly become the focus of criticism.
The number of alternative online media services deliberately used to spread false information and propaganda, or at least hyper-partisan content, is growing. Lower production costs and improved technical options give these formats a professional appearance, making it harder for the public to distinguish them from serious news. Many users also currently have a relatively low level of media literacy. On top of this, there are news services such as Russia Today (RT) or Sputnik that are controlled by foreign players and are also used as a means of spreading propaganda.
Disinformation, propaganda, and political advertising are not brand-new phenomena that first emerged in the digital era. To counteract the changes to how information is provided and received that have been brought about by the internet, it is important to invest in building and maintaining public resilience. In concrete terms, the aim should be to make it easier to access trustworthy, well-researched content; to boost the public’s media literacy; and to create an information ecosystem in which disinformation and propaganda can be identified more easily.
1. Strengthening the Press and Broadcasters
Given that it is impossible for any individual to keep up with today’s barrage of online news, people are more dependent than ever on the selection and presentation of information by the institutions of the press and broadcasters. Public service broadcasters, in particular, play the key role in providing the basic service of ensuring the public is supplied with trustworthy, fact-checked information. The free press must be strengthened to ensure the supply of high-quality news in the future. Regulatory intervention with the aim of creating a level playing field for internet companies and media operators could also be a useful approach. This can take place primarily by expanding the new Inter-State Treaty on Media Services (Medienstaatsvertrag) to include the operators of social networks, which will then be required to take on similar responsibilities and obligations in terms of reporting.
Unlike the wholly private US media landscape, whose polarization is contributing significantly to social division in the United States, Germany has an institution that seeks to promote social integration: public service broadcasting. The obligation for public service broadcasting to uphold the principles of objectivity and impartiality in reporting is particularly important in this context. However, public service broadcasting can only fulfil this mandate in the long term by strictly observing political neutrality.
- Against the background of a radically shifting media landscape, the possibility of realigning the constitutional mandate for broadcasters to ensure the provision of a basic service for the public must be considered, with an even greater focus on providing fact-checked content in the future.
- Consideration should be given to the possibility of supplementing German public service broadcasting with a European public service broadcaster, which would make the EU’s policies and the decision-making processes in Brussels, Strasbourg, and Luxembourg more transparent and understandable.
- Furthermore, an independent rating agency could be created to rate media services, focusing on criteria such as “factuality of reporting.” An agency of this kind would, of course, have to be independent and free of state influence, and subject to oversight by the courts, in order to avoid the impression that it is a “ministry of truth.”
2. Platform Regulation
Today, major online platforms play a key role in the dissemination of information by acting as gatekeepers. To ensure that the public’s confidence in democracy is not undermined by disinformation and propaganda, there is a need for platform regulation that creates new responsibilities – reflecting their role as gatekeepers – and places greater obligations on platforms more generally.
In the medium term, it is important to raise public awareness of the mechanisms and dangers of online disinformation and propaganda
With its proposal for a Digital Services Act, the European Commission has taken an important first step in the direction of this kind of regulation, with the aim of setting standards for social media and data collection by platforms – an approach that is similar to the General Data Protection Regulation. In addition, the EU has announced that it intends to launch legislative initiatives on the regulation of artificial intelligence and the transparency of sponsored political content online. The future federal government should actively participate in these initiatives – via the Council of the European Union – and contribute proposals of its own.
- One key objective should be to create greater transparency in the online context. The public should be able to know who commissioned an advertisement, and with whom or what people are interacting via social media. It should be clear what is and is not a bot, and whether a “message” is not “real” because it is the result of interaction with a bot.
- Furthermore, in the case of posts with political content, it should be clear to users whether it is a paid advertisement or journalistic content.
- Platforms should also face more stringent responsibilities regarding the use of algorithms. The criteria that determine the algorithmic selection and presentation of news should be made more transparent.
- Online anonymity, currently taken for granted, is increasingly becoming a challenge as well. As cyberspace develops into a second (virtual) world in which people live their lives, greater consideration should be given to means of facilitating identification in similar ways to the traditional (real) world. One conceivable option would be for anonymous “cyber identities” (conveyed by internet avatars) to be identifiable in the real world, enabling people to be held accountable for their actions in certain circumstances.
3. Public Relations Activities
Although the federal government is not allowed to intervene directly in the public opinion-forming process, it is free to engage in information and public relations activities and to inform the public about its work. In the future, the federal government should make greater use of the possibilities and reach of social networks to supply the public with trustworthy information. The “Together Against the Coronavirus” (Zusammen gegen Corona) campaign run by the Federal Ministry of Health on Instagram can serve as a model; it provides up-to-date information about efforts to tackle the pandemic and the recommendations issued by the Robert Koch Institute in the form of short, easy to understand video clips. However, the government should refrain from engaging in counterpropaganda in the narrower sense as, from a psychological perspective, it can have the effect of reinforcing people’s views.
4. Boosting Media Literacy
Although social media use is continuing to rise, many users still have a low level of media and technical literacy. For example, around half of Europeans do not know what an algorithm is, let alone how it functions or what influence algorithms have on the selection and presentation of information. In the medium term, it is important to boost the public’s media literacy, in particular that of young people as part of their education, and to raise public awareness of the mechanisms and dangers of online disinformation and propaganda.
The idea of an independent rating agency could again be useful here. A certification process could be considered, through which online news providers could confirm that they comply with and uphold journalistic standards under the press code. As is already common for online shops, the operators of online news services would be entitled to display a kind of quality label on their website after passing the agency’s checks.
When it comes to cybersecurity, the “human element” is demonstrably among the biggest security risks. For example, the biggest cyberattack on the German Bundestag to date, in 2015, was only possible because users unthinkingly opened phishing emails. Boosting the public’s media literacy is therefore very important in this context, too.
One of the keys to repelling the new threats is detecting them at an early stage so that it is possible to respond to them in time. Previous experience with disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks has shown that a substantial proportion of these attacks are orchestrated and event-driven, and so they can be anticipated in certain circumstances.
The issues of disinformation and propaganda should be an integral element of Germany’s crisis response policy in the future
- In the short term, detection and early warning systems should be created to allow such attacks to be identified at an early stage and defensive measures to be taken. The situation centers of the relevant security authorities could be strengthened with specially trained staff.
- The relevant security authorities already have a platform for cooperation to identify and defend against cyberattacks, in the form of the National Cyberdefense Center (Nationales Cyber-Abwehrzentrum). While its mandate is currently limited to cyberattacks in the narrower sense (IT systems), this could be expanded to include tackling disinformation.
- The possibility of creating a structure in Germany similar to the EU’s East StratCom Task Force could also be considered; it would focus solely on detecting and combating foreign disinformation and propaganda.
- At the European level, the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) could provide a forum to facilitate and coordinate the exchange of experience between the EU and its member states on political hacking and disinformation in the context of elections and crises. Guidelines and rulebooks for dealing with these challenges could be drawn up on the basis of this exchange of experience. The federal government should seek to ensure that the German security authorities are closely involved in cooperative structures of this kind.
- Building on lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic, the issues of disinformation and propaganda should be an integral element of Germany’s crisis response policy in the future.
- There are already signs that disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks are becoming a permanent problem; solving it will require established structures that facilitate close communication among policy-makers, security authorities, the scientific community, and business. Efforts to tackle hybrid threats must be further institutionalized. In particular, the work of the National Cyber Security Council and its associated working groups should definitely be continued and intensified.
- To better prevent future cyberattacks on public institutions and ensure they retain the capacity to act at all times, Germany should invest in the IT security of critical infrastructures, especially that of constitutional bodies at the federal and state levels.
One special characteristic of new hybrid threats, such as disinformation and cyberattacks, is that they benefit to a significant degree from the amplifying effect of certain technologies (algorithms, malicious social bots, etc.), or are even the product of them (AI-generated deepfakes). Tackling these phenomena therefore requires an understanding of exactly how they work and how these technologies interact. On top of this, the rapid pace of technological advances means that new threats can emerge at any time, and countermeasures must therefore be continuously adapted. Public authorities are therefore dependent on having an up-to-date picture of the threat landscape at all times.
- To enable it to keep up with future developments in the field of disinformation, the federal government should continue to support interdisciplinary research projects. A promising interdisciplinary platform that can serve as a starting point for further work already exists, in the form of the DORIAN project (detecting and tackling disinformation) supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
- Particular attention should be devoted to new, even more dangerous forms of disinformation, especially deepfakes. These are photos or videos manipulated using AI in such a way that they are no longer readily identifiable as fakes. Experts fear that the foreseeable widespread use of deepfakes in the near future could further erode the public’s already battered trust in politics and the media. It is therefore all the more important to drive forward regulation of the use of artificial intelligence.
- Researchers seeking to conduct a scientific analysis of the phenomenon of disinformation are dependent on data that can shed light on the exact dynamics of the spread of fake news on social networks. Currently, however, there is an information gap in favor of the major online platforms, which have the relevant data, but often refuse to make it available for research purposes. The possibility of establishing an obligation for online providers to grant researchers access to this data in a manner that complies with data protection requirements should therefore also be considered in the context of the EU’s forthcoming regulation of platforms.
As an EU member state, Germany is part of the European union of states and multilevel constitutionalism. Consequently, Germany must refrain from designing policies in isolation and instead always consider its actions in this context, or in other words from the perspective of cooperation and the division of labor. This is particularly true in the case of challenges such as the hybrid threats that are relevant here, which affect all member states and the EU equally and require a cohesive approach. The federal government should therefore work toward the definition of a joint strategy for the EU and the member states.
Germany should, together with the EU, press for the development of a common strategy based on the guiding principles of transparency, credibility, media literacy, and shared responsibility
At the same time, Germany and the EU should look for partners on the other side of the Atlantic (the United States, Canada) and in other parts of the world (especially the EU’s neighborhood and Australia and New Zealand) who want to join their efforts to safeguard democracy and boost digital resilience. A joint forum for dialogue on practical approaches and new concerns could, as part of a “transatlantic economic and values-based community,” be anchored in the framework of the OECD, NATO, or a new “alliance for digital democracy.”
Various key events in recent years have exposed Western societies’ vulnerability to disinformation, propaganda, and targeted efforts to influence elections, and have demonstrated the need for action on this issue. German policy-makers have to respond to these new threats to democracy by taking active measures to protect it and by boosting democratic and digital resilience. The complexity of the new threat landscape requires a cohesive approach by Europe’s democratic countries, with the involvement of business and civil-society stakeholders, as well as partners from across the Atlantic. In this framework, Germany should, together with the EU, press for the development of a common strategy based on the guiding principles of transparency, credibility, media literacy, and shared responsibility.
This Action Plan is an edited and slightly updated translation of the German text that was originally published on September 20, 2021, as part of DGAP Report No. 17 Smarte Souveränität (“Smart Sovereignty”). It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik” about which you can find more information here.
An English PDF of this text can be found as a chapter in the DGAP Report “Smart Sovereignty.” Download the full report here.