‘Common knowledge attacks’ – a new concept in defending democratic debate?

Bruce Schneier, a respected thinker in the area, and George Washington University political scientist Henry Farrell, have written a paper that seeks a broad framework for understanding how to defend democracy in the time of the internet.

An extension of earlier ideas of technology.

They divide political knowledge into two categories, common political knowledge, or “the shared set of social beliefs about how the system works, who the actors are, and so on, which helps to order politics” and contested political knowledge, “the knowledge that is contestable, where people may disagree.”

Democratic and authoritarian nations view these two types of information very differently. Democratic countries offer certainty about the political process – common knowledge – but uncertainty about outcomes, who should lead, or what the issues are. While authoritarian nations promote certainty about contested knowledge – who is the leader, what is a national priority – but murkiness about common areas of knowledge, the integrity and availability of justice, elections, accountability.

For years, authoritarian nations have felt besieged by the common political knowledge promoted online from democracies. But they learned how to adapt to that, by using confusion and distraction to tamp down on such knowledge flowing their way. In 2016, Russia facilitated a common knowledge attack on the US, by attacked the shared knowledge of the system.

Separately, Schneier has written: “Libertarians often argue that the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. What Vladimir Putin discovered was that the best antidote to more speech was bad speech.”

The paper highlights how presumptions around the freedom agenda of the internet promoted by the West since the 1990s has posed a threat to the power of the authoritarian East. Likewise, the ability of authoritarian nations to promote “contested” political information into democracies, allows them to attack the common knowledge necessary for democracy to work.

George Soros’ role in international politics would be a vivid example of the divide in political knowledge and how it is seen depending on the government type.

George Soros

For years, the billionaire financier funded democratic reform think-tanks through the post-Soviet space. From the Western democratic view, Soros’ goal was not to challenge contested political knowledge as much as spread common political knowledge about democratic reform.

For the powerful in Eastern Europe however, the promotion of common political knowledge was viewed as a challenge to the monopoly on contested political knowledge in place since pre-internet times.

Looked at against the backdrop of the Color revolutions and the US invasion of Iraq, Soros’ organizations appeared dead-set on regime change in Eastern Europe.

Bruce Schneier

This helps explain how Soros himself has become a Janus-faced symbol of this East-West information tug-of-war.

The Schneier-Farrell paper focuses on knowledge rather than information – a useful distinction because ultimately, it’s knowledge that drives outcomes and actions. Information is simply the mechanics of sharing that knowledge. Knowledge shapes perceptions, and thinking about it in its totality, rather than the engineered level of bot networks, is essential for understanding the struggle.

But the common-knowledge attack model needs refinement. Already people have asked where something like neoliberal consensus would fit in the world of contested/common knowledge. That’s a very good question. At some point, contested knowledge would seem to migrate to common knowledge – and vice-versa.

Government run healthcare in the US is controversial, contested. In Australia, it is common political knowledge. If the US public further embraces government-directed healthcare, does it eventually move into the common knowledge category?

Nevertheless, breaking political knowledge into these two broad streams has value in part because it offers a pattern for the human mind. It can, for example, offer an explanation for what is happening with the Trump Russia probe – as the suspects, including Trump, fight to bamboozle the public faster than the forces of law and order can prosecute the case.

In this world, common political knowledge (the processes of independent courts), is being damaged by the willful misapplication of contested political knowledge (claims the case is a “witch hunt”, driven by the “Deep State”, creating “McCarthyism”) to delegitimize the process – presumably with the hope of strangling it.

A challenge for citizens of democracies is the ability to make sense of the information chaos unspooling around them. At the same time, conflicting realities of open democracy and authoritarian states are increasingly colliding online.

Scheiner advocates for what he calls a “cybersecurity” approach to defending democracy. Importantly, he describes “democracy” as “an information system.”

Calling a democracy an information system is important for two reasons:

It more accurately describes our information environment today (an immense network).

Calling it a “system” is also valuable because it reaches right back to the early days of cybernetics to understand the challenge we have today.

In doing so, it sidesteps the more partisan linkages with the issue of influence and interference campaigns today.

It also sidesteps the notion of war -which summons imagery and ideas which, while appropriate in some cases, don’t suit the normal functioning of a democracy.

As I testified to parliament, one of the goals of any democracy in this new information reality, should be a relaxed decision making environment.

The sense of permanent emergency made possible by the internet and social media is creating a climate in which politicians and parties are increasingly making unforced errors. (Morrison)

Describing democracy as an information system also breaks the debate out of a false framing about free speech.

We live in a time when there is no scarcity to the published/broadcast word. That makes it difficult to claim people are being “censored” in the traditional sense. In fact, the concept of “free speech” has become a shield for chaos from fringe-right groups.

Recall, the Charlottesville, Virginia Unite the Right rally in 2017 was billed as an exercise in “free speech” – highly debatable, yet even using the term confuses citizens of liberal democracies rightfully raised to respect free expression.

Visualizing political knowledge along this access: with the types of knowledge depending on the type of government hints at the long struggle ahead. But it also offers some broad guardrails that can possibly be internalized.

I am a firm believer that the best defense against an information attack is to have a public that knows what it knows (political facts), and knows why it knows it (how these facts support the greater political order).

The common political knowledge view helps nudge society in that direction.

There is a quality of universalization going on.

That is needed to counter the mounting, some would say, paralyzing information complexity we all face.

There is one other noteworthy feature of the paper, while Farrell has done interesting work on trust in politics, Schneier ranks high in the tribe of the tech world.

Like any other social group, the tech world has its own culture and custom. Since the early 1990s, its libertarian streak has only grown stronger. Many in the community have grown up with the fictional vision of themselves as individuals on a matrix, ignorant of the real world needs of society to protect itself.

That all came home in a jarring way with the 2016 election.

Whether institutions adopt the common/contest political knowledge understanding to help them defend themselves is unclear. However, if Schneier (and other respected info sec figures) make problem solving in this area cool, it will be good for the overall defense of democracy.

For too long, there is a tendency in the technolibertarian sector to eschew the wider community-view (including people in government and business) in favor of an individual view.

Now the challenges to democracy are so great that if these groups don’t work together (tech complementing government and business) the entire, ahem, information system, is at risk.

And while common/contested knowledge dichotomy may work for today: my sense is that those who seek to undermine democracy online would eventually adapt and promote ideas that hard to classify as “common” or “contested.”

Despite all the talk of bots, trolls, deep fakes and AI, deception is ultimately a human business.

However, seeing someone with info sec credibility move into this broader, hybrid space, will hopefully encourage others.

The Sony hack: Why the US is blaming North Korea

One question that keeps surfacing about the Sony hack is Info security legend Bruce Schneier notes the US “might have intelligence on the planning process for the hack” which together with the evidence from the act were enough for the White House to name North Korea.

But with so many doubts and caveats buzzing about North Korea’s role, it was a second observation from Schneier that seemed to make even more sense.

North Korea (WikiCommons)
North Korea (WikiCommons)

He quotes a George Washington University cyber security research scientist named Allan Friedman, who said that diplomatically it’s “a smart strategy” for the US to be overconfident in assigning blame for cyberattacks. As Schneier relates Friedman’s view:

Beyond the politics of this particular attack, the long-term US interest is to discourage other nations from engaging in similar behaviour. If the North Korean government continues denying its involvement, no matter what the truth is, and the real attackers have gone underground, then the US decision to claim omnipotent powers of attribution serves as a warning to others that they will get caught if they try something like this.

Add to this that there is hardly any downside for the US to blame North Korea, the speed and confidence of the accusation makes sense. If there is one place in the world people will believe almost anything about, it’s North Korea. The Hermit Kingdom has few allies and North Korea’s “role” in the hacking of Sony Pictures would be less embarrassing than other, bigger rivals of the US.

Internet nationalism?

I have been an admirer of Bruce Schneier for a while but I think he misses the point on this piece about nationalism on the internet.

Yes, he is correct that companies will try to profiteer from any cyberwar. Citizens should be vigilant. Especially after the war profiteering around the US invasion of Iraq and the global war on terror.

Yes, the government must be kept in check to prevent an assault on the privacy of its citizen – in the name of security. And that is a full time effort.

But if Schneier thinks the biggest risk in the situation arises from nefarious corporations in West, he needs to take a closer look at the implications of State Owned Enterprises in China, which are neither fully private companies, nor fully the government.

SOEs’ fist-in-glove relationship with the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party really blur the lines of responsibility in any matter of privacy and profiteering.

The challenge in the West is that capitalism has corroded democracy in recent years. But that trend is slowly being corrected by a rise in participation in democracy and a more vocal civil society movement. The path back to sanity in the West is restoring the boundaries between government and business which eroded during the rise of freemarket fundamentalism. The cure is more oversight and accountability.

SOEs by their design run counter to those ideas. And in fact, it’s the mix of the Chinese military, cyber-thieving on an industrialized scale, only to share the spoils with China’s businesses (no doubt through well-connected SOEs) that forms the threat for Western economies, businesses and citizens.

I’m not sure Schneier takes this into account in his piece. He writes in the same anachronistic tone that many people do, who assume US power in these areas is uncontested. US power in the cyber-industrial realm is very much contested these days, from many fronts, by the biggest single challenge, I would guess, is the new model coming out of China.

Another interesting point Schneier touches on and that we have considered for some time at Cold War Daily, is the possibility of a Balkanized internet. Schneier writes:

We’ve started to see increased concern about the country of origin of IT products and services; U.S. companies are worried about hardware from China; European companies are worried about cloud services in the U.S; no one is sure whether to trust hardware and software from Israel; Russia and China might each be building their own operating systems out of concern about using foreign ones.

It sounds like science fiction now but if the Internet truly becomes Balkanized, you can expect the technology to follow. Some authoritarian governments have a deep interest in making their systems inoperable with the wider internet. Why wouldn’t that extend to the hardware, too? It sounds far fetched but it shouldn’t. There was a time, in the not too distant past, when there were two models of many pieces of hardware. The kind seen in the West, often underpinned by the R&D and industrial policies of those countries; and another version found behind the Iron Curtain. A similar trend could come in the future.