Autocratic regimes are liars.

Spoiler: Autocratic countries disseminate false information to influence their own and foreign citizens than democratic countries. Countries which disseminate false information, also restrict of suppress freedom of speech and freedom of the media. China, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela are among the ten countries that abuse the Internet and social media in this way. Latvia, Taiwan, and USA are among the ten countries that are most abused by foreign governments dissemination false information.

The Kremlin regime also frequently use associated political parties and candidates to disseminate false information at home and abroad. Russian government and party dissemination of false information abroad increased significantly after the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution.

For regimes like China’s and Russia’s, disinformation campaigns are key foreign policy instruments. Often campaigns to get the autocratic regimes’ opinions, narratives and lies, picked up by media in the target countries.

Social media debates surrounding the 2016 US presidential election, the Brexit referendum, the French presidential elections, and many more were plagued by the existence of troll accounts and bots on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. Analyses showed that many of these accounts were handled from Russia. Russia is not the only country whose government uses social media and the Internet in this way. This is a practice shared my many other autocratic countries.

Over time, Russia and other authoritarian regimes have increased their capacities to monitor their populations. Authoritarian regimes have also increased their efforts to influence opinions and decision making in other countries by disinformation campaigns. These operations are well known and have been investigated by journalists, security services and media platforms themselves.

The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project led by the department of political science in Gothenburg, has started to investigate this in a more systematic way which also allows for quantitative assessments. The Digital Society Project is devoted to analyses of the political environment of the internet and social media. Data which provide information on topics related to coordinated information operations, digital media freedom, online media polarization, and more have been collected.

This makes it possible to analyse how different types of autocratic and democratic regimes use the Internet in different ways. A natural point of departure is to see which types of regimes try to influence its own citizens by disseminating false information. A qualified guess would be that it is autocratic regimes which also restrict media and freedom of expression. Unsurprisingly, my hunch appears to be right, c.f. Figure 1. 

Figure 1. Liberal democracy (left panel) and Freedom of expression (right panel) vs Government dissemination of false information targeting domestic citizens.

Source: V-Demhttps://www.v-dem.net/en/Note: Liberal democracy; The liberal principle of democracy emphasizes the importance of protecting individual and minority rights against the tyranny of the state and the tyranny of the majority. The liberal model takes a ”negative” view of political power insofar as it judges the quality of democracy by the limits placed on government. Range 0 to 1. The closer to 1, the more democratic is the country in question. Freedom of expression; the index measures to what extent governments respect press and media freedom, the freedom of ordinary people to discuss political matters at home and in the public sphere, as well as the freedom of academic and cultural expression. Range 0 to 1. The closer to 1, the freer is the press and the people to debate in the country in question. Government dissemination of false information targeting domestic citizens; the indicator measures how often the government and its agents use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to influence its own population. Range 0 to 4 where 0 indicates extremely often and 4 never or almost never.

 

Some autocratic regimes, especially those with superpower ambitions like China and Russia, are frequent disseminators of false information targeting foreign citizens. The Chinese government has ambitions to spread the “Chinese model” to the world, especially to developing countries which have received large amounts of Chinese investments. Russia’s meddling in other countries’ elections are well known and have become more sophisticated since the poisoning of Yushchenko and Putin’s appearances at Yanukovytch’s rallies, which for example the Muller report shows. China and Russia also have diaspora in other countries which are targets and sometimes used as amplifiers. Russia is known for portraying especially its Latvian and Ukrainian diasporas as victims of discrimination. Being autocratic countries, China and Russia confirm the above displayed pattern between Liberal democracy and Freedom of expression vs Government dissemination of false information, but now abroad, c.f. Figure 2.

 

Figure 2. Liberal democracy (left panel) and Freedom of expression (right panel) vs Government dissemination of false information targeting foreign citizens.

Source: V-Demhttps://www.v-dem.net/en/Note: Liberal democracy; The liberal principle of democracy emphasizes the importance of protecting individual and minority rights against the tyranny of the state and the tyranny of the majority. The liberal model takes a ”negative” view of political power insofar as it judges the quality of democracy by the limits placed on government. Range 0 to 1. The closer to 1, the more democratic is the country in question. Freedom of expression; the index measures to what extent governments respect press and media freedom, the freedom of ordinary people to discuss political matters at home and in the public sphere, as well as the freedom of academic and cultural expression. Range 0 to 1. The closer to 1, the freer is the press and the people to debate in the country in question. Government dissemination of false information targeting foreign citizens; the indicator measures how often the government and its agents use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to influence its populations in other countries. Range 0 to 4 where 0 indicates extremely often and 4 never or almost never.

 

 

Until now, I have not shown that China and Russia are worse abusers of this practice than other countries. It is time to do so. China and Russia and other regimes, where also freedom of expression and human rights are as rare as oxygen in vacuum, like North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela practice this frequently, c.f. Figure 3.  

Figure 3. The ten worst disseminating countries of false information targeting foreign citizens (left panel) and domestic citizens (right panel) in 2019.

Source: V-Demhttps://www.v-dem.net/en/ Note: Government dissemination of false information; the indicator measures how often the government and its agents use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to influence its own or other countries’ populations. Range 0 to 4 where 0 indicates extremely often and 4 never or almost never.

 

The main targets of these regimes’ false “domestic” information are shown below together with the main disseminators of false information. Countries in the upper left, especially Latvia and Taiwan, are destinations of false information, but never or almost never origins of such information. Some origin countries of false information such as Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, in the lower right, are rare destinations of false information.  Interestingly, some countries which were found to be among the most frequent senders of false information to other countries’ citizens are also receiving a lot of false information from other countries, c.f. Figure 4. 

Figure 4. Destination and origin countries of false information in 2019.

Source: V-Demhttps://www.v-dem.net/en/Note: The vertical axis shows Government dissemination of false information abroad; the indicator measures how often the government and its agents use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to influence citizens in other countries. Range 0 to 4 where 0 indicates extremely often and 4 never or almost never. Example: The Latvian government practically never does it, while the Venezuelan government frequently disinform citizens in other countries.  The horizontal axis measures the indicator Foreign governments dissemination of false information; the indicator measures how routinely foreign governments and their agents use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to influence domestic politics in a country. Range 0 to 4 where 0 indicates extremely often and 4 never or almost never. Example: Taiwanese citizens are extremely exposed to disinformation from other countries’ governments or agents, while Solomon Islands almost never are exposed to this.

 

 

Neither China nor Russia are significantly exposed to false information from abroad to any high extent even though they often portray themselves as victims thereof These regimes censor media and Internet fearing that their populations would gain access to unbiased information.

It is not surprising that countries in conflict or civil unrest like Syria and Venezuela are surrounded by rumours, lies and other kinds of false information. To my big surprise, also North Korea appears to be a target of dissemination of false information. I could not imagine that it was possible to say something about that country which was disinformation. This shows why it is necessary to use reliable sources. The findings may make you change your biased mind.

Anyway, being a target does not necessarily mean that the efforts succeed. North Korea has made sure that no one except a few trusted, have access to Internet. One would think that Israel and South Korea would be targeting Syria and South Korea respectively, but the data do not lend support to that hypothesis. It does not distinguish between senders of false information per receiver or receivers of false information per sender. And neither the Israeli nor South Korean data show any co-variation with the data for Syria and North Korea. USA is a target for false information not a sender. However, it should be noted that a tendency for disseminating false information at home and abroad has increased since Trump became president. This tendency chimes well with how the USA has tilted towards autocracy since then.

As mentioned above, the data does not allow for distinguishing between separate destinations for Government dissemination of false information abroad or separate origins for Foreign governments dissemination of false information. But even if the data is “aggregated”, one can see that some governments’ disseminations of false information abroad very closely follow other countries’ exposure to foreign countries dissemination false information targeting people in other countries. (That was a long sentence, attackers and attacked is shorter). It is well known that China and Russia have weaponised the use of information. While China often have targeted Taiwan and USA, Russia have not only targeted USA but also gone after Ukraine, c.f. Figure 5.

Figure 5. Russian dissemination of false information abroad and Ukrainian receiving false information from abroad 2000-2019.

Source: V-Demhttps://www.v-dem.net/en/ Note: Foreign governments’ dissemination of false information; The indicator measures how routinely foreign governments and their agents use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to influence domestic politics in other countries. Range 0 to 4 where 0 indicates extremely often and 4 never or almost never. Government dissemination of false information abroad; the indicator measures how often the government and its agents use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to influence other countries’ populations. Range 0 to 4 where 0 indicates extremely often and 4 never or almost never.

 

 

Russian attacks increased after 2007. The attacks increased sharply during the Maidan Revolution when the people of Ukraine turned their backs to Russia. Not shown above, but visible in the data, is the decreased dissemination of false information from Ukrainian governments to their own citizens after the rogue president Yanukovytch fled to Russia with bags full of stolen money.

Governments are not the only disseminators of false information. In some countries, the executive powers use political parties for this end. One such well-known example is United Russia. The party has established co-operations (see here, here, and here) with right-wing political parties in for example Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, and the Netherlands in order to influence decision making in a favourable way for Russia. These co-operations encompass more nefarious ways to influence citizens and decision makers abroad, than disseminating false information. Concerning the dissemination of false information at home and abroad, the Kremlin co-ordinates with its closest political parties and candidates, c.f. Figure 6.

Figure 6. Russian government and political party dissemination of false information targeting Russian and foreign citizens 2000-2019.

Source: V-Demhttps://www.v-dem.net/en/ Note: See above for Foreign governments’ dissemination of false information domestic; Government dissemination of false information abroad. Party dissemination of false information domestic; The indicator measures how often major political parties and candidates use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to influence their own population; Range 0 to 4 where 0 indicates extremely often and 4 never or almost never. Party dissemination of false information abroad; The indicator measures how often major political parties and candidates use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to influence citizens of other countries abroad. Range 0 to 4 where 0 indicates extremely often and 4 never or almost never.

 

 

The figure shows that Russian government and party disinformation activities increased especially during 2007, 2011, and 2013. In 2007, elections were held in Russia. As usual, the elections were manipulated and favoured Putin’s United Russia which is why both government and party lies increased. The 2011 elections which triggered massive protests were of course also manipulated as OSCE observed. Following the 2013 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, Kremlin unleashed its troll armies to disseminate lies. Most of the activities targeted citizens outside of Russia. As noted above, people in Ukraine were prioritised.

The data collected in the V-Dem’s Digital Society Project is extremely useful and shed lights on how frequent governments use the social media and internet to disseminate false information. The quantitative analyses that it allows, are complementary to other analyses. For these efforts to yield an impact, the lies and disinformation needs to be picked up by media, influencers, and opinion makers with some credibility.

Other academic studies confirm that it is mostly autocratic countries that use Internet and social media for influence operations. A recent report by the Oxford Internet Institute point to China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela as users of social media like Facebook and Twitter to influence global audiences.

Kragh and Åsberg (2017) are among many scholars who have documented how not only dissemination of false information, but also forgeries, military threats and agents of influence are parts of the Kremlin foreign policy strategy. Kragh and Åsberg analyse the case of Sweden and have documented how forgeries and false information originating from Russia found its way into Swedish media.

The well-respected Swedish journalist Patrik Oksanen has thoroughly analysed Russian and other rogue actors’ information warfare. Recently, China’s and Russia’s attempts to distort facts and reality have focused upon alleged help to EU countries and USA, see here. The Kremlin also abuses history, and its rewriting attempts are an integrated part of Russian security policy. For more info about how the Kremlin lies in that respect, see here and here.  

5 thoughts on “Autocratic regimes are liars.

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