Responding to alleged Russian interference by focusing on the vulnerabilities that make it possible


In recent years, the legitimacy of electoral processes in Western democracies has been repeatedly put into question due to alleged Russian interference. Actors associated with Russia have been involved in scandals related to the production and spreading of disinformation, manipulation of social media through bots and other means, as well as cyber attacks.

The array of accusations is wide, and potential responses may vary. Politicising the issue without taking any meaningful measure to prevent interference has been common, but alternatives may be no less problematic. For example, introducing stringent legislation such as such as the criminalisation of a wider segment of online activities, censorship of online communities, and increased surveillance, ultimately risk becoming more a threat for democracy, than a way for protecting it. Shifting the responsibility for such delicate aspects to large, privately-owned internet platforms can also hardly be considered an adequate solution in a democratic context, largely due to the opaque and unaccountable decision-making processes that almost inevitably emerge from this approach.

Finally, timed hacks and cyberattacks have also proved to be a powerful tool of interference. Leaving to individuals and often under-funded political organisations the full responsibility for protecting their communication and data from cyber attacks coming from powerful external actors has proved to be ineffective.

This chapter outlines responses to alleged Russian interference in selected Western democracies focusing in particular on the online sphere, and makes reference to policies that may be relevant to this issue even when they were not specifically framed as responses to Russian interference. It concludes by highlighting how the issue of interference is inextricably intertwined with the broader issue of managing and regulating the privately-owned online public spaces that have become a central component of contemporary democracies, and how addressing the newly-shaped structural vulnerabilities that come along with the increasingly pervasive role of the Internet in our societies is likely the best long-term approach for democracies to mitigate the threat of external interference.

Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa
Giorgio Comai
Researcher, data analyst