by Maciej BartkowskiNovember 28, 2018
In summer 2018, Facebook announced that it discovered a number of new fake accounts linked to the infamous Russian troll factory—the Internet Research Agency. One of these accounts included “resisters” that created and promoted a protest event called “No Unite the Right 2 – DC,” against the planned white supremacist “Unite the Right II” rally. A legitimate U.S. activist got duped into co-hosting the protest. By the time Facebook shut down the page, close to 2,600 users had expressed interest in the event and 600 of them said they would join it.
Two years earlier, Baltimore activists, not even realizing that the Russian trolls stood behind the provocation, successfully pushed back against outside interference and rejected Russian-based social media calls for protests and street demonstrations on the first anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death. In Texas, on the other hand, Russian trolls managed to instigate two dueling protests near the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston in May 2016, one under the banner of “Stop Islamification of Texas” and another counter-protest, “Save Islamic Knowledge.”
Since 2016, activists have had to contend with the fact that at least one foreign power wants to use their local activism to destabilize democratic processes and institutions. No longer is their activism only local. Authoritarian governments seek to weaponize local grievances and legitimate activism as part of their non-military warfare against democracies. Even though local activists may have interests other than international politics and geopolitical rivalries, Russia’s populace-centric warfare arrived at activists’ doorsteps. This ushered in an era in which Russia and likely other authoritarian regimes, via open and concealed disinformation attacks, will continually attempt to co-opt, exploit, and distort authentic activism in open democratic societies.
Without a strategic approach to countering disinformation warfare from abroad, activists are in danger of becoming “useful innocents”—unwitting assistants for external interests bent on distorting their goals and actions, sowing discord, and undermining democratic practices and trust in democracy. As such, activists must be better prepared for the authoritarian onslaught.
An Activist’s Guide to Fighting Foreign Disinformation Warfare, included in the link below, helps activists defend and push back against nefarious interference from abroad. It aims to reduce the danger that hostile foreign actors pose and their attempts at distortion and disinformation. The cornerstone of such resistance is tightly knit local communities that are organized, mobilized, and vigilant. Such communities are characterized by a dense web of mutual aid and solidarity assistance organizations, trusted information-sharing networks, information verification hubs, and rapid mobilization infrastructures to defend against both domestic and external authoritarian threats.
To prepare for disinformation warfare, the Activist’s Guide underscores that activists in democracies must:
Domestic activists must understand authoritarian regimes view the relatively open societies activists live in as an existential threat to regime survival. Authoritarian government is irreconcilable with democratic societies.
Therefore, whatever makes democratic societies more chaotic, divided, and pulled apart in different, preferably violent extremes, is, in the eyes of the authoritarians, worth an investment of time and resources. To that end, authoritarians look for low-cost and high-impact strategies that include weaponizing unwitting domestic activists to fuel disconnect and widen social rifts. Authoritarians use existing legitimate grievances as fuel to distort words and actions to their own ends.
Activists see their community organizing and activism as an effort to make their country stronger and better, and this healthy attitude can be evoked in the building of coalitions with diverse actors, including activists, civic associations, state institutions, and private corporations to strengthen self-organized solidarity communities. The Activist’s Guide aims to channel this motivation into an actionable plan to better prepare democratic activists to fight for the truth.
Dr. Maciej Bartkowski is a Senior Advisor to ICNC. He works on academic programs to support teaching, research and study on civil resistance. He is a series editor of the ICNC Monographs and ICNC Special Reports, and book editor of Recovering Nonviolent History. You can follow him @macbartkow