Why Are We Polarized?

Are we bound to follow tribal instincts when logic should lead us across the political aisle?

When I hear that the American political system isn’t broken, but exactly working as designed I can’t help but wonder how this can be true in times of all-encompassing social media, rapid loss of attention, and increasing discrimination of economic opportunity. However Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized claims that, and more, that this working political system is polarized by us as we are getting polarized by it. As confusing as it starts, Klein nevertheless does a fantastic job to elaborate his thoughts throughout ten chapters spread over 268 pages with convincing research and easy-to-read prose.

Frankly, I found this general topic challenging to comprehend. Hence Klein’s book appears to me neither a clear-cut psychological review of polarization nor is it a deep dive into America’s governance and democratic institutions. It comes across as a hybrid of history lessons, democratic ideas, and political media management. In light of such a mess I tend to gravitate to first principles: what is polarization? 

According to Klein “the logic of polarization is to appeal to a more polarized public, (so) political institutions and actors behave in more polarized ways. As political institutions and actors become more polarized, they further polarize the public.

Explaining polarization with polarization isn’t helpful. After searching for adequate definitions I found myself trapped in deciding between constitutional polarization and political polarization and the iterative sense of polarization. Interpreting Klein’s logic polarization may be a deviation from core political beliefs toward ideological extremes in an effort to reach a new audience. That in turn perpetuates a more extreme behavior of political actors and institutions. As Klein argues:   

“This sets off a feedback cycle: to appeal to a yet more polarized public, institutions must polarize further; when faced with yet more polarized institutions, the public polarizes further, and on on.”

It’s not an ideal beginning to a complex story, but it makes the most out of it. Across the first few chapters, Klein dives into the history of the American political system; mainly how Democrats turned liberal and Republicans became conservative. When it comes to group identity, the book dives deeper into the psychological aspects of us voters. 

“We became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more– indeed, we’ve come to like the parties we vote for less–but because we came to dislike the opposing party more.”

To put it simply Klein argues we have a stronger loyalty to our group than we have to our own ideology. Add in some cases a strong repulsion of the other group’s belief system. Klein continues:

“The human mind is exquisitely tuned to group affiliation and group difference. It takes almost nothing for us to form a group identity, and once that happens, we naturally assume ourselves in competition with other groups. The deeper our commitment to our group becomes, the more determined we become to ensure our group wins.”

There is plenty of well-established scientific research to concur with this notion. While the psychology of the crowd is one factor in this complex analysis, Klein manages to clarify that our identity, more than our previous system of beliefs, where we live, or who we associate with, dictates our sense of loyalty. And no other entity threatens our identity as much as the media. American media, the press, and political journalism are by nature mouthpieces of certain political powers – and always have been. Following the hotly contested Presidential election in the year 2000, the election of America’s first African-American President in 2008, and the consistently increasing economic gap between those who repair, clean, transport, deliver, and educate our communities and those who (merely) push paper our American identity has never been more called into question as it is today; especially in policy proposals of aspiring presidential candidates. Klein does not shy away from criticizing the media’s contribution to the skewed, partisan landscape:

“If we (the media) decide to give more coverage to Hillary Clinton’s emails than to her policy proposals–which is what we did–then we make her emails more important to the public’s understanding of her character and the potential presidency than her policy proposals. In doing so, we shape not just the news but the election, and thus the country.”

Overall, though, Klein’s book feels like a warm conversation with someone who is genuinely interested in understanding how we got where we are. He offers a clear diagnosis of the current State of the Union without swaying too far into either political camp, but falls short in offering a pathway forward or even mere suggestions on how to bridge the gap between opposing (political) viewpoints; therefore groups. Ezra Klein’s advice is “to pay attention to identity. What identity is that news article invoking? What identity is making you defensive? What does it feel like when you get pushed back into an identity? Can you notice when it happens?”

It is an engaging book that provides insight into the political discourse of America beyond New York or California. While it is well written and researched it feels more like a conversation, a starting point, rather than a solution or a means forward. 

How To Built Community To Influence Elections

Read this book to improve your civic engagement and create a more meaningful neighborhood.

Eitan Hersh is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. In his latest book “Politics Is For Power – How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change” he decries the virtue signaling that is political hobbyism on social media and makes a case for grassroots politics. 

Political hobbyism can be identified as short-lived, current affair commentary on social media that results in no real-world change. It delivers a feeling of participation. We all have done it to some extent. Yet, Hersh finds, especially the political left fails to recognize that real political change is driven by a few selected local leaders who listen to the needs of a community. Consistent in-person community outreach builds a stronger community that is rather aligned than divided on overarching, public policy programs. 

“Political hobbyism is to public affairs what watching SportsCenter is to playing football.”

Source: College-Educated Voters Are Ruining American Politics by Eitan Hersh

Among the many well-told stories in this book, Hersh offers a prominent example of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz. For a brief moment in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections Schultz entertained an independent bid for the highest position in this country. Remember, Starbucks was built over decades of carefully choosing product ingredients, the ambiance of its stores, and hiring local leaders to represent its brand. It was a slow expansion from Seattle to the greater Pacific Northwest and year by year to more States across the United States. But when it came to his own campaign bid, Schultz seemingly forgot his patient business acumen but threw endless money at cable news and talk shows to make his case in less than eighteen months. Obviously, from the outside and in hindsight, this approach reeks of failure when it took years to build the Starbucks brand nationwide. Why would he seriously believe to reach the same market plurality in the political domain in just eighteen months? Because politics were only a hobby to Howard Schultz. 

“Politics Is For Power” is appropriate for community leaders, new and seasoned neighbors, social justice warriors and keyboard cowboys, and anybody really interested in improving civic engagement in their community. Personally, I loved the idea of using political donations instead of buying political ads to rather spend it on support for local community organizers who engage in face-to-face conversations with the local community and actually listen. Crafting impactful, social and economic policies is an arduous process that can only succeed if all voices of society have been heard. Furthermore, Hersh created captivating storylines condensed and spread across each chapter, which really brings home his point about taking action requires getting out the door, talking to your neighbors, and listen. 

Lastly, if you’re still reading, I feel it’s necessary to call out editorial ingenuity when it is due: this book has 217 pages, 22 chapters, and encompasses 5 parts. Each page is formatted for the reader’s pleasure. Chapters are comprehensive yet not longer than a commute to work would be. And its parts really provide a structure around the argument that highlights the thoughtful content of the book. Kudos, Simon & Schuster!

When Did Truth Die?

Michiko Kakutani offers an eloquent compilation that explains the decay of veracity in the United States. But perhaps more importantly, it skillfully weaves together almost a century of painful lessons from history, literature, and politics.

The Death of Truth was highly scrutinized by media publishers, book critiques, and the greater literature community at the time of its publication. Google the reviews. As the title suggests The Death of Truth – Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani advocates for the truth to be added to the list of casualties of the former Trump administration. Reading this book at the end of 2021, almost exactly one year since Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States, and almost 3 ½ years after its initial release, I can’t help but view this book as a compilation of essays that are really bite-sized opinion pieces. This makes for an immersive, moving reading experience, but also renders the message of The Death of Truth to be the mere same polemic it appeared to seek to quash. Admittedly, a provocative diagnosis of our current political landscape is hardly done in the total absence of partisanship. 

Kakutani brilliantly threads her analysis by starting with a historical review of culture wars and past regimes’ handling of truth. She gradually escalates her storyline to the twenty-first century with humanity’s dependency on social media, algorithmic subversion of political decision making, and foreign actors exploiting the American focus on self-pursuit at the expense of civil responsibilities. In her epilogue, Kakutani warns of the continued erosion of democratic institutions. We, the people, must protect the democratic institutions that uphold the roof of democracy. At the same time, there won’t be any easy remedies or shortcuts that will fix our polarized, cultural division. Times like these require deft civil disobedience of the many that are publicly rejecting the idea of cynicism and resignation pursued by the totalitarian few. 

People who are likely to read this book are unlikely to learn something new, but I believe it’s still worth it for the extensive reading resources provided by Kakutani. Her remarkably colorful writing style and sobering outlook on the future state of veracity in the United States won’t disappoint either. NPR’s Michael Schaub nailed it when he wrote: “The Death of Truth is a slim volume that’s equally intriguing and frustrating, an uneven effort from a writer who is, nonetheless, always interesting to read.”

Cheer Up, It Could Always Be Worse. You Could Be Livin’ In Texas!

Molly Ivins collection of political commentary for there are nothin’ but good times ahead.

When I think of a strong and independent woman I think of Mary Tyler “Molly” Ivins. Her inimitable talent of writing political commentary that combines both, lighthearted humor and serious critique, is dearly missed in times when the fourth estate of our great nation seems to lack identity and direction. “Nothin’ But Good Times Ahead” is a compendium of her political columns published between circa 1991 and 1993. While the early ‘90s seem to be a world away, her writings could have been published today without missing the mark. In a way, this says a lot about the never-changing political theatrics that is American politics. That being said, this book has no beginning and no end. Each chapter stands alone at a perfect length for your daily commute. The occasional laugh is guaranteed. In the chapter “Gibber An Other Misdemeanors” Ivins describes the former Speaker of the House of Texas Representatives Gib Lewis as 

“The Gibber gave us so many moments to remember. Both his tongue and his syntax regularly got so tangled that his language was dubbed Gibberish and provided the state with wonderful divertissement. He once closed a session by thanking the members for having extinguished theirselfs. Upon being reelected at the beginning of another session, he told members he was both grateful and ‘filled with humidity.’”

Of course, it’s not all about making fun of elected officials. Her subjects receive an equal amount of praise if they did live up to their political mandate. Another feat of Ivins’s writing style is her subconscious hook with which she provokes the reader’s reflection and encourages political awareness.

“It’s all very well to dismiss the dismal sight of our Legislature in action by saying, ‘I’m just not interested in politics,’ but the qualifications of the people who prescribe your eyeglasses, how deep you will be buried, what books your kids read in school, whether your beautician knows how to give a perm, the size of the cells in Stripe City, and a thousand and one other matters that touch your lives daily are decided by the dweebs, dorks, geeks, crooks, and bozos we’ve put into public office.”

Nowadays, our media spews out and distributes divisive messages of the nature of “Don’t California my Texas”. Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson are relentless in pointing fingers at the other side. Ivins’ column, her legacy really, is about critical thinking. It’s about the essence of democracy – participation. If we, the people, fail to critically reflect on who we vote into public office and check their decisions once in a while, then we’re headed nowhere. Her contributions carry an optimistic message that it’s not all dark and gloomy. There are honorable folks out there, who have integrity and dedicate themselves to serve the public without ifs or buts. In her own words

“The people I admire most in our history are the hell-raisers and the rabble-rousers, the apple-cart upsetters and plain old mumpish eccentrics who just didn’t want to be like everybody else. They are the people who made and make the Constitution of the United States a living document”

If only she were around today. Rest in peace, Molly Ivins. 

Falsehoods And The First Amendment

Our society is built around freedom of expression. How can regulators mitigate the negative consequences of misinformation without restricting speech? And should we strive for a legal solution rather than improving upon our social contract? In this paper, constitutional law professor, bestselling author and former administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Cass Sunstein reviews the status of falsehoods against our current constitutional regime to regulate speech and offers his perspective to control libel and other false statements of fact. 

tl;dr

What is the constitutional status of falsehoods? From the standpoint of the First Amendment, does truth or falsity matter? These questions have become especially pressing with the increasing power of social media, the frequent contestation of established facts, and the current focus on “fake news,” disseminated by both foreign and domestic agents in an effort to drive politics in the United States and elsewhere in particular directions. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that intentional falsehoods are protected by the First Amendment, at least when they do not cause serious harm. But in important ways, 2012 seems like a generation ago, and the Court has yet to give an adequate explanation for its conclusion. Such an explanation must begin with the risk of a “chilling effect,” by which an effort to punish or deter falsehoods might also in the process chill truth. But that is hardly the only reason to protect falsehoods, intentional or otherwise; there are several others. Even so, the various arguments suffer from abstraction and high-mindedness; they do not amount to decisive reasons to protect falsehoods. These propositions bear on old questions involving defamation and on new questions involving fake news, deepfakes, and doctored videos.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Falsehoods and the First Amendment by Cass R. Sunstein at https://jolt.law.harvard.edu/assets/articlePDFs/v33/33HarvJLTech387.pdf 

(Source: Los Angeles Times)

As a democracy, why should we bother to protect misinformation? We already prohibit various kinds of falsehoods including perjury, false advertising, and fraud. Why not extend these regulations to online debates, deepfakes, etc? Sunstein offers a basic truth of democratic systems: freedom of expression is a core tenet to promote self-government; it is enshrined in the first amendment. People need to be free to say what they think, even if what they think is false. A society that punishes people for spreading falsehoods inevitably creates a chilling effect for those who (want to) speak the truth. Possible criminal prosecution for spreading misinformation should not itself have a chilling effect on the public discussion about the misinformation. Of course, the delineator is a clear and present danger manifested in the misinformation that creates real-world harm. The dilemma for regulators lies in the difficult task to identify a clear and present danger and real-world harm. It’s not a binary right versus wrong but rather a right versus another right dilemma. 

Sunstein points out a few factors that make it so difficult to strike an acceptable balance between restrictions and free speech. A prominent concern is collateral censorship aka official fallibility. That is where a government would censor what it deems to be false but ends up restricting truth as well. Government officials may act in self-interest to preserve their status, which inevitably invites the risk of censorship of critical voices. Even if the government correctly identifies and isolates misinformation, who has the burden of proof? How detailed must it be demonstrated that a false statement of fact is in fact false and does indeed present a clear danger in causality with real-world harm? As mentioned earlier, any ban of speech may impose a chilling effect on people who aim to speak the truth but fear government retaliation. In some cases, misinformation may be helpful to magnify the truth. Misinformation offers a clear contrast that allows people to make up their minds. Learning falsehoods from others also increases the chances to learn what other people think, how they process and label misinformation, and where they ultimately stand. The free flow of information is another core tenet of democratic systems. It is therefore preferred to have all information in the open so people can choose and pick whichever they believe in. Lastly, a democracy may consider counterspeech as a preferred method to deal with misinformation. Studies have shown that media literacy, fact-checking labels, and accuracy cues help people to better assess misinformation and its social value. Banning a falsehood, however, would drive the false information and its creators underground. Isn’t it better to find common ground, rather than to silence people?

With all this in mind, striking a balance between permitting falsehoods in some cases, enforcing upon them should be the exception and nuanced on a case-by-case basis. Sunstein shares his ideas to protect people from falsehoods without producing excessive chilling effects from the potential threat of costly lawsuits. First, there should be limits on monetary damages and schedules should be limited to address specific scenarios. Second, a general right to correct or retract misinformation should pre-empt proceedings seeking damages. And, third, online environments may benefit from notice-and-takedown protocols similar to the existing copyright practice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) is a prominent example of notice-and-takedown regulations aimed at harmful, but not necessarily false speech. I think a well-functioning society must work towards a social contract that facilitates intrinsic motivation and curiosity to seek and speak the truth. Lies should not get a platform, but cannot be outlawed either. If the legal domain is sought to adjudicate misinformation, it should be done expeditiously with few formal, procedural hurdles. The burden of proof has to be on the plaintiff and the bar for false statements of fact must be calibrated against the reach of the defendant, i.e. influencers and public figures should have less freedom to spread misinformation due to their reach is far more damaging than that of John Doe. Lastly, shifting the regulatory enforcement on carriers or social media platforms is tantamount to hold responsible the construction worker of a marketplace – it fails to identify the bad actor, which is the person disseminating the misinformation. Perhaps enforcement of misinformation can be done through crowdsourced communities, accuracy cues at the point of submission or supporting information on a given topic. Here are a few noteworthy decisions for further reading: 

Microtargeted Deepfakes in Politics

The 2019 Wordwide Threat Assessment warned of deepfakes deployed to manipulate public opinion. And while the 2020 U.S. presidential elections did not see an onslaught of deepfakes undermining voter confidence, experts agree that the threat remains tangible. A recent study conducted by researchers of the University of Amsterdam investigated the impact of political deepfakes meant to discredit a politician that were microtargeted to a specific segment of the electorate.

tl;dr

Deepfakes are perceived as a powerful form of disinformation. Although many studies have focused on detecting deepfakes, few have measured their effects on political attitudes, and none have studied microtargeting techniques as an amplifier. We argue that microtargeting techniques can amplify the effects of deepfakes, by enabling malicious political actors to tailor deepfakes to susceptibilities of the receiver. In this study, we have constructed a political deepfake (video and audio), and study its effects on political attitudes in an online experiment. We find that attitudes toward the depicted politician are significantly lower after seeing the deepfake, but the attitudes toward the politician’s party remain similar to the control condition. When we zoom in on the microtargeted group, we see that both the attitudes toward the politician and the attitudes toward his party score significantly lower than the control condition, suggesting that microtargeting techniques can indeed amplify the effects of a deepfake, but for a much smaller subgroup than expected.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Do (Microtargeted) Deepfakes Have Real Effects on Political Attitudes? by Tom Dobber, Nadia Metoui, Damian Trilling, Natali Helberger, and Claes de Vreese at https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161220944364

Credits: UC Berkeley/Stephen McNally

Deepfakes are a subcategory of modern information warfare. The technology leverages machine learning to generate audio-visual content that imitates original content but differs in both intent and message. Its highly deceptive appearance renders it a potent weapon to influence public opinion, undermine strategic policies or disrupt civic engagement. An infamous deepfake example depicts former president Obama seemingly calling president Trump expletives. Online microtargeting is a form of social media marketing to disseminate advertisements tailored to the specific interests of an identifiable, curated audience. Within the political context microtargeting is used to spread a campaign message to a specific audience that is identified and grouped by characteristics to either convince the audience to vote for or against a candidate. There are a number of civic risks associated with deploying deepfakes: 

  • Deepfake content is hard to tell apart from original and authentic content. While deepfake videos may signal some nefarious intent to a cautious audience, the potential impact of deepfake radio or deepfake text on voter behavior hasn’t been researched as of this writing
  • Political actors may leverage deepfakes to discredit opponents, undermine news reporting or equip trailing third-party candidates with sufficient influence to erode voter confidence  
  • Used in a political campaign deepfakes may be strategically deployed to incite a political scandal or to reframe current affairs and regain control of an election narrative

The study created a deepfake video depicting an interview of a prominent center-right politician of a large christian democratic party. The manipulated part of the otherwise original and authentic content shows the politician seemingly making a joke about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ: 

“But, as Christ would say: don’t crucify me for it.”

This content was shown to a randomly selected group of christian voters, who had identified their religious, conservative beliefs or voted for this politician in past elections. The researchers found that deepfakes spread without microtargeting the audience would impact the behavior towards the politician but not necessarily his political party. However, deepfakes tailored to a specific audience using political microtargeting techniques amplified the discrediting message of the deepfake therefore impacting both the behavior towards the politican and the political party. Interestingly, staunch supporters of the politician might be shielded from a lasting behavioral change due their own motivated reasoning (bias) derived from the politician’s ideology. For this group, the researchers argue a certain degree of discomfort or deviation from previous political ideology conveyed in a deepfake may reach a tipping point for staunch supporters to align with the results of this study but the limitations of this study may also indicate room for some unforeseen outcomes. 

A roadmap to counter microtargeted deepfakes should include legislators passing regulations to limit political campaign spending online, which would directly confine a campaign to focus on their limited financial resources and weed out corporate interests. Second, new regulations should focus on the protection of personal-identifiable data. A microtargeting dataset includes location data, personal preferences and website interactions etc. While this data is valuable within a commercial context, it should be excluded from civic engagements such as elections. Academics will have an opportunity to discover insights on algorithm bias to improve upon the existing machine learning approach that is training generative adversarial networks with pre-conditioned datasets. Moreover, future research has an opportunity to further investigate the impact of manipulated media on voter education, confidence and behavior within and outside of political elections.     

Here’s one of my favorite deepfake videos of president Trump explaining money laundering to his son-in-law Jared Kushner in a deepfake(d) scene of “Breaking Bad”

Trump’s Grand Strategy

Legacy matters these days. As President-elect Joe Biden is about to take office I thought it is worth my while to reflect on America’s leadership role in the world. How did Donald Trump fare with international relations? What happened to the immigration ban and withdrawal of U.S. military overseas? Is the world safer because of Trump’s ‘America First‘ rhetoric? This paper sheds light on the contrasting ideologies that governed U.S. foreign policy under Trump.

tl;dr

When a new President is elected in the United States, the first thing analysts do is define that President’s grand strategy; yet, naming Donald Trump’s grand strategy was a difficult task as his pre-election speeches often contradicted traditional US foreign policy norms. Trump’s ambiguous grand strategy combines two US foreign policy strategies: nationalism in the sense that his preference is for unilateral policies prioritising American interests, and a traditional foreign policy approach, as seen in the moves taken against China and Iran. Surprisingly, this grand strategy unintentionally contributes to cooperation in Eurasia, as actors like Russia, China, Turkey, India and the European Union continue to try to balance the threat from the United States instead of competing with each other, while smaller countries are reluctant to challenge the regional powers due to mistrust towards Trump.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Mixing Grand Strategies: Trump and International Security by Murat Ülgül at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03932729.2020.1786928 

Image credit: Barbara Kelley

When Donald Trump assumed office as 45th President of the United States the world was facing a known unknown. A mercurial real-estate developer and reality show entertainer was suddenly in a position to reshape America’s international relations. Until then, Trump’s political record consisted of commentary on current affairs and one failed attempt to run for President in 2000. His business record was strained with few successful real estate developments in New York City and a number of unsuccessful business ventures in different industries.  

Historically U.S. foreign policy is set by the President. Entire presidencies rested on a sophisticated strategy to secure American interests at home and abroad. Following WWII the United States adopted a foreign policy of primacy, which according to Patrick Porter branches into a grand strategy of 

  1. Military preponderance 
  2. Allied relationships  
  3. Proliferation of U.S. capitalism 
  4. Absolute control of nuclear (power) weapons

However Trump’s world views stand in stark contrast with that of previous administrations. His nationalistic rhetoric of ‘America First’ struck a chord in harmony with authoritarian dictatorships. It created concerns among democratic nations whether President Trump would continue to invest into alliances and build amicable relationships or if he would lead the United States into isolationism. His chaotic leadership style had many scholars speculate whether Trump would recognize the power imbalance between America’s allies and Russia or China. It raised questions whether Make America Great Again rhetoric meant a complete withdrawal from the international stage and mark a pivot point in America’s pursuit of primacy as its grand strategy. 

“Grand strategy can be defined as a great power’s roadmap to realising its long-term objectives with its actual and/or potential resources”

In this paper, Murat Ülgül reframes the analysis of Trump’s grand strategy by focusing on the complementary elements of a nationalist traditionalism rather than its competing positions. Unlike other scholars have suggested, Trump’s grand strategy is not exclusive continuity of previous “business as usual”. Albeit divisive in rhetoric throughout his pre-election years and time in office, his grand strategy cannot be viewed as raw isolationism. Moreover Ülgül makes a case for a combination of nationalism and traditionalism. Nationalism can be observed in the character and image of Donald Trump himself. Traditionalism leaves its mark in Trump’s choices for his national security advisors, e.g. Michael Flynn, H. R. McMaster and John Bolton, which had gained significant influence over Trump throughout the course of his presidency. This unique but ambiguous combination appears to mitigate the negative effects of each individual strategy. Both are conflict-prone strategies yet the rate of international conflicts has steadily decreased during Trump’s tenure. America First has led the United States to a delayed or complete disengagement from international contests. All the while his administration is running a traditional, hawkish narrative that has led foreign powers known for the pursuit of authoritarian objectives to cooperate and resolve their disagreements with America’s allies against a potential fallout from the United States. In other words, the administration continues to influence global policy without military leverage or engagement. Nevertheless its impact is waning. As a result of this grand strategy, the United States has suffered some reputational damage for fewer countries retained faith into America’s ability to manage international relations or to be a beacon of democracy. 

While this paper goes into more depth than I can summarize here, I found this idea of a mixed grand strategy not as new as the paper suggests. Prior to WWII, the United States practiced a calibrated offshore balancing. In 2016, Stephen Walt suggested a deliberate withdrawal from conflict areas in favor of an intentional engagement of strategic partners. Walt’s propositions imply an element of deliberation of U.S. foreign policy which never seemed to register with Trump, but it helps in finding Ülgül’s argument even more convincing. It further helps to see some positive from this oddball presidency as he disappears from the international (relations) stage.    

How Cyberwarfare Is Used to Influence Public Policy

Cyberspace differs from physical domains. How do we know a hacker’s motive or allegiance? Among the many cyber conflicts in cyberspace only a few escalate into a real world conflict. Those which do, however, beckon a reevaluation of existing policies. This paper argues current research is underrating the second-order impact from cyber-enabled political warfare on public policy. It makes a case for policy makers to consider changes of public policy beyond mere retaliation. Moreover it offers insights into the complex investigations process tied to cyber operations that fall out-of-pattern.

tl;dr

At present, most scholarship on the potential for escalation in cyberspace couches analysis in terms of the technological dynamics of the domain for relative power maneuvering. The result has been a conceptualisation of the logic of operation in cyberspace as one of ‘tit-for-tat’ exchanges motivated by attribution problems and limited opportunity for strategic gain. This article argues that this dominant perspective overlooks alternative notions of how cyber tools are used to influence. This, in turn, has largely led scholars to ignore second-order effects – meaning follow-on effects triggered by a more direct outcome of an initial cyber action – on domestic conditions, institutions, and individual stakeholders. This article uses the case of cyber-enabled political warfare targeting the United States in 2016 to show how escalation can occur as a second-order effect of cyber operations. Specifically, the episode led to a re-evaluation of foreign cyber strategy on the part of American defence thinkers that motivated an offensive shift in doctrine by 2018. The episode also directly affected both the political positions taken by important domestic actors and the attitude of parts of the electorate towards interference, both of which have reinforced the commitment of military planners towards assertive cyber actions.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Beyond tit-for-tat in cyberspace: Political warfare and lateral sources of escalation online by Christopher Whyte at https://doi.org/10.1017/eis.2020.2

Credit: Jozsef Hunor Vilhelem

Cyber-enabled political warfare takes place on a daily basis. It is orchestrated by democracies and authoritarian states alike. A prevailing academic school of thought evaluates these cyber operations by a four-prong perimeter guidance: 

(1) Common intelligence-gathering
(2) Signal testing
(3) Strategic reconnaissance which may result in a
(4) Major cyber assault on critical infrastructure

On both sides, attacker and defender, it is incredibly difficult to determine whether a cyber operation is a tolerated everyday occurrence or a prelude to, if not the final attack against national security. This overpowering imbalance between signal-to-noise ratio has led to a dominant academic perspective that argues cyber operations are an endless loop of retaliatory instances overlooking clandestine long-term objectives. It begs the question: when does an instance of cybersecurity become a matter of national security? When does a cyber operation escalate into full-on warfare? In this paper, the author creates a notion for cyber operations as an instrument to influence public policy beyond mere breach of cybersecurity post escalation. Through examples of cyber-enabled political warfare, the author makes a case for vulnerabilities in democratic societies that originate from a failure to evaluate cyber-enabled political warfare under cyber conflict standards. Therefore creating a vacuum for policy development skewed to overstate potential cyber risks in public policy.    

Cyber operations resulting in cyber conflict are here to stay. In an increasingly accessible space of computer science and affordable hardware, nation states as well as hostile individual fringe groups find more and more fertile ground to develop new generations of cyber tools to pursue anything from criminal objectives to ideological influence operations to subvert public opinion. In the context of cyber operations being part of an everyday occurrence this poses the first problem of identifying a targeted cyber operation as a departure from regular everyday probes in cyberspace. Aforementioned affordability increases difficulty to assess the situation since the cyber operation may originate from a state-actor or is a proxy action driven by individual fringe groups that may or may not be adherent to a state-actor. Here, states need to decide between tolerance, which may result in a failure to detect a major assault on critical infrastructure or a measured response, which will always result in giving away signal that an opponent may abuse for future cyber operations. Of course, the former carries risk of escalating into a real world conflict. Whereas the latter carries the risk of setting the stage for a real world conflict under even less favorable circumstances. In this latter scenario the author creates a notion to consider the second order effects on public policy. In other words, when investigating cyber operations, it is necessary to review beyond the technical means and parse the attack with current affairs. This notion reverberates into the policy development process for the event of a shift in strategic policy.

“What pressure points and vulnerabilities dictate the utility of cyber operations and, subsequently, the shape of potential escalation?”

Democracies delegate the power of the people to elected leaders based on an information exchange system that requires integrity. Cyber-enabled political warfare seeks to exploit integrity by sowing distrust in the political system and its elected leaders. By example of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, the author builds a case for clarity on how the cyber operations were not only a ‘tit-for-tat’ engagement in support of a particular candidate but rather deployed with a strategic, long-term objective to subvert the integrity of U.S. democracy. The disruption of the democratic process took place by 

(1) Identifying a lack of government regulation for social media platforms that have critical reach with the electorate
(2) Understanding flaws in the algorithmic design of information distribution via social media
(3) Increased cyber attacks on private information that carry disruptive elements once published
(4) Increased deflection of attempts to specifically attribute cyber operations. Therefore enabling plausible deniability
(5) A domestic political landscape that is so polarized that it tolerates foreign interference or is even further divided by domestic agent’s rhetoric and 
(6) A foreign actor (Russia) who is willing to exploit these vulnerabilities

Through these various inter-connected and standalone stages of cyber-enabled political warfare, the Russians were able to effectively undermine public trust in both political candidates, the democratic process and beyond that to an extent that triggered a critical reevaluation of the U.S. cyber strategy resulting in new public policy. The implication for policy makers is to critically consider lateral side effects of cyber operations beyond the method employed and damage done. The potential to influence decision-making of state leaders might be enhanced by these second order effects especially when misinterpreted. Aside from attribution, an effective policy response must take a holistic approach beyond closing a vulnerability in national security.    

A History Of Disinformation And Political Warfare

After political powerhouse Hillary Clinton lost in a spectacular fashion against underdog Donald J. Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, the world was flabbergasted to learn of foreign election interference orchestrated by the Russian Internet Research Agency. Its mission: to secretly divide the electorate and skew votes away from Clinton and towards Trump. In order to understand the present, one must know the past. This is the baseline of ‘Active Measures – The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare’ by Johns Hopkins Professor of Strategic Studies Thomas Rid. 

I bought this book to study the methodology, strategy and tactics of disinformation and political warfare. To my surprise, the book only spends 11 pages on disinformation. The remaining 424 pages introduce historic examples of influence operations with the bulk of it dedicated to episodes of the cold war. Rid offers insights into the American approach to defend against a communist narrative in a politically divided Germany. He details Soviet influence operations to time-and-again smear American democracy and capitalism. The detail spent on the German Ministry of State Security known as “Stasi” is interesting and overwhelming. 

While my personal expectation wasn’t met with this book, I learned about retracing historic events to attribute world events to specific nations. Its readability is designed for a mass audience fraught with thrilling stories. What is the role of journalistic publications in political warfare? Did Germany politically regress under American and Soviet active measures? Was the constructive vote of no confidence on German chancellor Willy Brandt a product of active measures? Who did really spread the information the AIDS virus was a failed American experiment? On the downside, this book doesn’t really offer any new details into the specifics of disinformation operations. Most contemporary espionage accounts have already been recorded. Defectors told their stories. This makes these stories sometimes bloated and redundant. Nevertheless, I believe to understand our current affairs, we must connect the dots through the lens of political history. Rid presents the foundations for future research into influence operations.

Consistent Chaos: Trump’s Leadership Style And US Foreign Policy

U.S. foreign policy concerns a wide range of highly complex issues. It requires consistency, integrity and long-term strategy. President Trump demonstrates none of these characteristics in his presidency. Accordingly, foreign policy experts grow concerned about the direction of U.S. diplomatic relations. Does Trump have the leadership skills to recognize the weight of the office? Is his erratic behavior on social media a harbinger for isolationism? And what is the impact of Trump’s leadership style on U.S. foreign policy? It turns out: there is a method to this chaos.

tl;dr

This article examines President Trump’s foreign policy behavior as a product of a leadership style that is entrenched in a plutocratic worldview. We apply elements of Hermann’s leadership traits framework to Trump’s engagement with NATO, and characterize him as a low-conceptual complexity president, enabled by limited search for information and advice, a confrontational and insensitive approach to his environment, and proclivity to violate international norms and rules. We show that Trump’s low- conceptual complexity is underpinned by a plutocratic worldview which is transactional and money-first. We argue that while this signals change between Trump and his predecessors, this plutocratic approach has been one of the most significant sources of consistency within Trump’s administration.

Make sure to read the full data memo titled Low-conceptual complexity and Trump’s foreign policy by Asaf Siniver and Christopher Featherstone at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339911972_Low-conceptual_complexity_and_Trump’s_foreign_policy

Source: @AllHailTheTweet

When Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, I began to wonder what his Presidency will mean for our country, then in pursuit of a grand strategy of primacy. The Donald Trump the world knew until 2016 seemed to be oblivious to pursuing long term objectives. His entertainment persona was crafted for instant gratification, quick returns and scorched earth when necessary. Isolationism seemed inevitable as promised in his campaign. How would he handle this dichotomy? I am fascinated with human behavior. In particular in leadership positions. I believe responsibility and public pressure does shape the character, but the outcome might be one leader becoming a beacon for hope and progress while another will be remembered as the demise of democracy as we know it. Which is President Trump? An intriguing paper by researchers from the University of Birmingham analyzed the influence of Trump’s leadership style on U.S. foreign policy. They argue that Trump follows a plutocratic worldview, basically placing a higher value on individual wealth than on social welfare, which in conjunction with his mercurial nature and often unpredictable decision-making has led him to conflate complex foreign policy with his simple transactional leadership style. 

The Trump administration struggled from inauguration day with filling important cabinet and senior staff roles. A polarized election campaign produced the highest rate of staff turnover in the history of the U.S. government. As Trump’s campaign promises centered around domestic issues, a rigor negligence of foreign policy was omnipresent. The nature of America’s presidential system places Trump as the head of state and the head of government in a unique position to shape U.S. foreign policy based on his personality and his conduct. This resulted in a high degree of uncertainty of U.S. foreign policy and left allies as well as trade relationships in a suffocating limbo. This paper examined the degree of conceptual complexity present as observed in the President’s cognitive behavior over the course of his first term as President of the United States. Conceptual complexity refers to an individual’s ability to identify and differentiate several degrees of information. It indicates prowess to structure complex information using critical thinking and reflection. Magret G. Herman presented conceptual complexity as part of the seven leadership traits that can be analyzed based on what they (leaders) say. The researchers extrapolate this definition onto leaders, who 

understand reality through a multi-dimensional prism. They are sensitive to contextual variables and rely on information gathering and deliberation before making decisions. “

Within international and diplomatic relations this might encompass an ability to identify cultural nuances, economic dependencies and access to natural resources of one country in conjunction with multilateral trade agreements, historic alliances or geopolitical tensions and conflict zones. A leader’s soft skills to compare, weigh and reflect this plethora of competing information under pressure defines high-conceptual complexity leaders. This is in contrast with 

low-complexity leaders (who) generally do not differentiate the dimensions of their environment. They view the world in binary terms (e.g good/bad, friend/enemy), and are thus more likely to make decisions based on intuition and emotion

Even the most lenient interpretation of it cannot suppress the immediate notion of Trump’s leadership style being drenched in low-conceptual complexity. Here, this paper is building a case that Trump effectively deceived his electorate of blue-collar workers who bought into the idea that a businessman with noble interests has arrived to ‘drain the swamp’. Through divisive and polarizing rhetoric, Trump disguised his administration of unprecedented wealthy staff as equals with the disenfranchised poor citizens in this country. Therefore creating a plutocratic rule by the few over the many – an American tendency with a rich history. Taking this together, the researchers find Trump’s decision-making process with regard to U.S. foreign policy is largely driven by plutocratic interests to allocate wealth of the many to a few wealthy. It places U.S. foreign policy in a transactional environment. In this environment, Trump allows few critical voices in his short process of deliberating foreign policy measures with little information at hand and an approach of keeping his hands close to the chest rendering complex diplomatic processes next to impossible to implement.    

His advisers didn’t know whether he was an isolationist or a militarist, or whether he could distinguish between the two.

The result is a catastrophic U.S. foreign policy that creates fertile ground for political and diplomatic repercussions on the internal stage and is an invitation for threats against U.S. national security. Trump’s contradictions are further observed in the debate around climate change. In 2009, the private citizen Trump and other business leaders lobbied for decisive investments into clean and renewable energy. Ironically this is an acknowledgment of climate change, which Trump has later denied and is persistently questioning on social media. In 2017, then President Trump initiated the exit of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord rendering it as detrimental to U.S. economic interests. In another example of Trump exhibiting plutocratic low-conceptual complexity, the tradition of paying a first diplomatic visit to our neighbors in Canada or Mexico was set aside to ‘make a deal’ with Saudi Arabia. Incidentally, Trump did not hide his personal business interests in Saudi Arabia. Such insensitivity to diplomatic nuance is low-conceptual complexity fueled by the pursuit of increasing individual wealth (or here his personal brand value as dealmaker). The paper closes with the relationship of President Trump and NATO. Trump operates with a small staff and wealthy cabinet members. He possesses little to zero knowledge of details of fiscal procedures of NATO or the overarching purpose of NATO. Further, Trump, a native of New York City did not seem to be aware that the infamous Article 5 was invoked in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. And while all these examples imply erratic cognitive contradictions, the researchers were able to identify consistency in the chaos that is Trump’s leadership. Viewed through a prism of plutocratic worldview established in his business endeavors, Trump exhibits strong signals for a leadership style governed by low-conceptual complexity. His transactional mindset based on limited information and suppressing critical voices applied to U.S. foreign policy is a threat to the foundations of peace.