By Suzanne Spaulding, Devi Nair & Arthur Nelson
Russia is engaged in a determined assault on Western democracies and their institutions. At its core, this is an attack on public trust and confidence. While policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have made important strides to combat Russian disinformation operations as they pertain to election security, little has been done to acknowledge and adequately address the threats against justice systems.
Traditionally a democracy’s judiciary is among the most trusted institution in the government. Because of this, it might seem like an unlikely target for disinformation campaigns by a foreign power. However, the judiciary is also, like elections, entirely dependent upon public acceptance of the legitimacy of its outcomes. The idea of a system built on the rule of law and justice delivered by a fair and impartial judiciary is a critical pillar of democracy and one of its greatest strengths. Erode the public’s belief in that idea, and the pillar begins to crumble.
Institutions must continue to work to live up to our ideals. But proactive steps must also be taken to safeguard justice systems in democracies like the United States and elsewhere. These systems must be actively protected from outside interference designed to undermine them. Perhaps more importantly, targeted countries need to ensure that their institutions and public are resilient in the face of adversary information operations that threaten to erode trust in democratic institutions.
The adversary most actively using disinformation to weaken democracies today is Russia. To better appreciate the threat landscape and the policies that might be considered to protect justice systems, we need to first understand how exactly Moscow uses disinformation to undermine these institutions.
The average layperson needs to only spend a few minutes in the comment section of a news story on Facebook to understand which issues are politically controversial. As a nation-state, Russia uses this same information to measure and identify exploitable social divides endemic to targeted democracies.
Social media is the perfect barometer for Russia to gauge which issues are most divisive in a society. Democracies guarantee free speech and that provides Russia an open window into authentic political dialogue among the target democracy’s population.
With regard to the justice system, Russia uses its understanding of what issues are most schismatic to seize upon controversial cases. By exacerbating legitimate grievances and manipulating the public’s lack of familiarity with the legal system and due process, Moscow identifies entry points for influence efforts that are particularly detrimental to faith in the rule of law.
It is through these entry points of divisiveness that Russia can successfully package disinformation narratives into social contagions: virulent rumors, conspiracies, and distortions designed to rapidly permeate a target population. Russia spreads these contagions targeting democratic justice systems through three primary channels—by spreading disinformation on social media, by propagating it on Russian state-sponsored media outlets, and finally, by reinforcing it through statements by top officials including President Vladimir Putin.