Online disinformation campaigns in the past several years have changed the world. The evidence for this is apparent in the United States and across the globe, and as our societies become more connected and technology continues to advance, such evidence is only likely to increase. For more than 70 years, Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairshas addressed the most pressing developments in global affairs in its pages. Our mission is to be topical and relevant, and each of our issues focuses on a single theme and includes articles that present as many perspectives and ideas on that theme as possible. Today, through this special issue, we are following in that tradition by collaborating with premier international institutions in an effort to shed light on one of the most important aspects of international affairs today: online disinformation and the threat it poses to liberal democratic norms.
The challenges that online disinformation campaigns present warrant urgency on the part of broader society, and we have designed this special issue to be read and disseminated widely. To that end, it is composed of relatively short pieces written in a style accessible to academics and non-academics alike. Articles include essays on disinformation’s underlying theories, case studies on how it has been used, and practical proposals on how smart policy might mitigate the most damaging effects of online disinformation campaigns.
Although the digital age is no longer new, only in the last decade has the impact that new technologies can have on our politics and institutions become so clear. Just eight years ago, in the early days of the Arab Spring, commentators marveled at the connective potential of Facebook and Twit- ter to harness the efforts of organizers and allow them to affect dramatic change, even so far as to bring down repressive governments. These dis- cussions were overwhelmingly positive. Today the view is quite different. Authoritarian governments have deployed armies of bots and trolls, guided by social network data mining, that have demonstrated capabilities that are disruptive at best—at worst, destructive—to liberal democracy and the social norms that sustain it.
This special issue, titled “Contentious Narratives: Digital Technology and the Attack on Liberal Democratic Norms,” is an outgrowth of a similarly titled April 2018 conference hosted by George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and the Elliott School of International Affairs, Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and the World Bank Group. The Journal of International Affairs subsequently assembled leading minds in online disinformation to examine the impact it has had, and might have in the future, on liberal democratic norms and societies.
Some of the pieces included in this issue raise serious concerns, while others lean towards optimism. We endorse neither position. Instead, we hope that this special issue will continue the conversation about disinformation and its digital conduits and help spread knowledge about it among prac- titioners, academics, and concerned citizens. The better informed we are, the less likely our society is to fall prey to weaponized digital technologies and the better equipped we will be to see online information networks as the reservoirs of positive potential that we once believed them to be.