Last month, The New York Times reported that disruptive cyber operations were launched against the Russia-based Internet Research Agency during the 2018 elections in the U.S. These operations took two forms: direct action causing brief shutdowns, and messages to suspected malefactors that sought to deter. The intended goal of these actions was to "protect American democracy."
Neither form action will prove effective over time. Election propaganda-by-troll can come from myriad sources and surrogates, easily outflanking clumsy efforts to establish some sort of "information blockade." As to deterrence, this is an old chestnut of the age of nation-states. Hacker networks will almost surely not be intimidated, whether they are working on their own or at the behest of a malign third party. Indeed, in the future, election hackers are far more likely to ramp up efforts to shape electoral discourses and outcomes—in democracies everywhere.
How, then, can this threat be appropriately countered? There are two ways—to date, neither of which has been chosen. The first has to do with seeking, via the United Nations, an "international code of conduct" (ICC) in cyberspace that would impose behavior-based constraints on both infrastructure attacks and "political warfare." Ironically, it is the Russians who have been proposing an ICC for more than 20 years now—while the American position has been in firm opposition—beginning shortly after the first meeting between U.S. and Russian cyber teams. I co-chaired that meeting, and thought the Russians had proposed a reasonable idea: creating a voluntary arms control regime, like the chemical and biological weapons conventions. It is well past time to return to this important idea.
The other way for democracies to take the sting out of political warfare waged from cyberspace is to clean up their own practices, which in too many countries have descended into outrageous spirals of distortion and lying. What foreign actors are doing pales next to what is being done by the very political parties and citizens of democratic nations now crying "foul" because some other is in the game. The world should look to America's Ronald Reagan, who back in the 1980s waged some of the cleanest political campaigns in memory. It won't be easy to stop individuals from becoming bad political actors in cyberspace, but the major political parties should set an example—and an implied moral norm—by rising to the challenge of focusing on fact- and issue-based election campaigns.
One last thought: the U.S. has to be careful about condemning others for engaging in interventions into its political processes. As Dov Levin pointed out in a study conducted while he was a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon, from 1946-2000 the U.S. intervened in 81 foreign elections. The number for Russia over the same period was 36. Some have defended American actions by saying that it's okay to intervene when your goal is to shore up liberal forces against authoritarians. But this kind of reasoning can be used by those who attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election in the U.S.; they can say that by "outing" the Democratic Party's backroom efforts to undermine Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign, they were serving the true foundation of democracy: free and fair processes.
Political discourse in cyberspace is a fact of life now, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future in democratic nations. There are two ways to proceed, if the trolls are to be tamed. One involves multilateral action via the United Nations; the other demands an inward-looking devotion—among the political class and at the individual level—to cultivating the better angels of our cyber natures. Both are worth pursuing.
John Arquilla is Distinguished Professor of Defense Analysis at the United States Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are his alone.