Disinformation Warfare: Autocracy Promotion and Democracy Resilience in the Digital Age

Dr. Chun-chih Chang

The issue of fake news and disinformation has seized academic attention, with abundant researches devote to tracing domestic origins and its consequences by applying micro-level data. However, as information manipulated by autocracies is affecting the global political environment, few studies delve into the dissemination of disinformation at the transnational level due to the weakness of theory and lack of empirical evidence. On the contrary, the literature of authoritarian promotion focused on financial support, military protection, diplomatic policy, and international alliance. However, information and communications technology (ICT) as the main channel of transnational communication and interaction has been missing from the discussion. Questions of autocracy promotion in the information perspective remain unanswered.

This paper induces disinformation and fake news as an information strategy of autocracy promotion by analyzing the issue from a geopolitical perspective by using updated cross-sectional time-series data. We argue that a democracy is highly risky exposed to disinformation attacks from aboard when there is at least an authoritarian power, with strong Internet censorship as an indicator of online warfare capacity, neighboring around her, which implied geopolitical competition. We integrated V-Dem’s Digital Society Project and political-economic indicators from various international sources into a database. This cross-sectional time-series sample consisted of 160 countries from 2001 to 2017. High dimensional fixed effect and casual-effect interaction model was applied to explore the association between fake news dissemination from foreign governments and the political-economy indicators. Empirical data confirm that democracies are more easily attacked when they have authoritarian states capable of manipulating online information in their backyard.

Our empirical results suggest the existence of regional authoritarian promotion and democratic resilience simultaneously. On one hand, authoritarian regimes disseminate fake news to interfere functions of democratic regimes in the region. On the other hand, democracies with higher educated citizens still demonstrate their resilience to defeat the infringement of fake news abroad. Our findings may advance current knowledge about Internet politics, comparative authoritarianism, and democratization, given the undergoing wave of authoritarian resurgence.