Fighting Foreign Malign Influence in Democratic States

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The anti-malign influence framework emerging among democracies is more of a patchwork and coordination appears to be lacking even though there are fora available for doing so. This has to change if liberal democracies want to enhance their resilience against malign authoritarian actors and create a culture of strategic thinking that will prevent fiascos, such as the European energy crisis, from happening again. How can they achieve this goal?  

GLOBSEC's new policy report "Fighting Foreign Malign Influence in Democratic States" takes a look at the main challenges democracies face regarding foreign malign influence and best practices in countering these activities. Based on our research, the following measures are recommended if democratic societies wish to improve their resilience against hybrid threats:

  • Long-term strategic thinking is crucial. Democratic states and institutions must consistently evaluate the security ramifications of their policy decisions. Severe dependencies on autocratic states, especially Russia and China, make it more costly to respond to antidemocratic manoeuvres when they occur and must be avoided at all costs. Governments, therefore, need to immediately begin reducing the exposure of their economies to Chinese markets and manufacturing before the next crisis gives them no choice. Both municipalities and strategically important companies should be engaged too. Governments should start incentivizing companies to return production to the EU and diversify their supply chains. Businesses, meanwhile, must formulate and regularly review strategies to manage decoupling from authoritarian markets should it be needed.
  • Addressing polarization and building trust in public institutions are essential to combatting foreign malign influence. Hostile actors, notably, excel in exploiting numerous vulnerabilities to expand their influence in targeted states. These perceived weak points may include financial inequality, cultural and ideological polarization, democratic shortcomings, economic turmoil, and divisive views on migration. The response, meanwhile, must include legislation directed at bolstering democracies by stemming the deterioration of citizen trust in democratic governance, mainstream political forces, and public institutions and then rebuilding this public confidence.
  • More coordination is required between stakeholders seeking to develop resilience. The best practices, at present, in combatting malign influence appear to be a patchwork of solutions. Democratic states must step up their efforts in sharing successful policies from their respective countries between themselves; these governments subsequently need to do more to implement these lessons learned. National, regional, and local hubs, meanwhile, should be established to facilitate this work within and across borders. It is important that these hubs also integrate a range of policy experts across different issues – fostering resilience against multi-layered threats requires a multidisciplinary approach. This exchange of ideas would go a long way towards ensuring that effective policies, no matter the size of the town they come from, can influence national and regional practices over the long term. Democratic states should also increase their cooperation with Taiwan to improve their responsiveness to hybrid threats: Taipei boasts invaluable experience in this field. Though governments should heed the fact that simply reproducing solutions, without adjusting the measures to local circumstances, will often encounter hurdles, the general directions of resiliencebuilding policies should be coordinated more closely.
  • The EU needs a “Buy Democratic Act”. EU rules must be revised to ensure that authoritarian actors cannot exploit their unfair advantage to win public procurement tenders (in member states) against EU companies operating in a free-market environment. There is a similar need to restrict investments in the EU by authoritarian regimes: the current foreign direct investment (FDI) screening mechanism must be revised to make it compulsory for member states to adopt national mechanisms, with the current voluntary approach failing to yield results.
  • Elevate corruption to a national security issue. Corruption is not only a crime against taxpayers but also a national security problem that opens pathways for authoritarian regimes to “buy” policies that suit them. Apart from important steps already taken by the EU (e.g. rule of law mechanism), the Union’s directive against money-laundering must be strictly enforced and assessed; there is also a strong need for an EU-wide lobbying directive that applies to European institutions and politicians too. The “Qatar scandal” affecting former EP Vice President Eva Kaili, among others, indicates that stronger measures to ensure that lobbying remains within legal boundaries must be implemented as soon as possible. Democratic states themselves, moreover, must ensure that they put in place robust and independent anticorruption authorities. Should an EU member state not possess such an authority, the Union must stop all financial transfers to the state in question until the issue is remedied.
  • More must be spent on fighting disinformation. There is a vast gulf between the budgets of state-backed disinformation actors and the national and EU authorities combatting them. But the odds can be evened out by allocating additional resources towards efforts to curtail opportunities for malign foreign actors to exploit societal tensions. There is a heightened need for a more sizeable budget for the East Stratcom Task Force – these funds would enable the institution to conduct additional research, translate its work to all EU languages, and improve its visibility to journalists and publics.
  • The independence of public broadcasters is crucial. Ensuring that public media outlets within democratic countries are financially and editorially independent is critical to combatting foreign malign influence, especially information operations. The higher the public’s trust in the public broadcaster, the less likely they are compelled to seek “alternative” sources for their news. It is also crucial to ensure that traditional media entities receive state funding based on clear and objective criteria, rather than political considerations, to ensure they provide balanced coverage on both domestic and international topics. The Commission’s recently proposed European Media Freedom Act could be a step in the right direction but questions remain concerning how rogue members will be forced to adhere to the spirit of the regulation.
  • European media literacy guidelines are needed in all local languages. The EU must translate its recently published media literacy guidelines1 for educators into all official EU languages, the languages of Western Balkan countries, and Ukrainian and promote them far and wide. The Union, moreover, must organize regular online and physical trainings for teachers in all EU languages to give them the skills to talk about the issue in schools – alone the guidelines are not enough. These trainings can, of course, be depoliticized, as general critical thinking skills concerning information are the same regardless of the topic of the materials.
  • Social media companies must be forced to act. The efficiency of the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the voluntary Code of Practice on Disinformation must be monitored constantly and adjusted based on practical experiences. The Code of Practice should be made mandatory to ensure companies refrain from using it merely as a PR stunt. Social media companies must be forced to be as rigorous in smaller markets as they are in larger ones, for instance, regarding the removal of potential inauthentic networks from their sites.
  • Remain proportional. Legislation mandating jailtime for spreading disinformation or action to shut down propaganda outlets could have a contradictory effect, especially if citizens lack trust in the justice system. Jailing “the purveyors of disinformation” has become a tactic deployed by authoritarian systems that use such powers broadly. Liberal democratic states must ensure that any punitive measures are proportional to the wrongdoing to avoid lending credence to the claims of malign actors about so-called “liberal dictatorships” or reinforcing the views of disinformation actors about alleged censorship.

If you want to learn more, read the full study here.