“False, manipulated or subverted information is a weapon,” French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly said last month. She’s right that disinformation is a weapon. The question is whether her country and others like it should be able to use it.
Facebook in the winter of 2020 took down two opposing foreign influence operations in the Central African Republic: One by Russia, a usual suspect, and one, to some onlookers’ surprise, by France. Democracies have publicly — and sanctimoniously — bridled at electoral meddling by the authoritarian states most commonly associated with such malfeasance. Yet the reality is that state-sponsored lies have long been a tool in geopolitical sparring for most nations, including ours, the United States, especially in times of conflict. The supposed good guys just don’t usually own up to it. France’s admission that it does indeed conduct influence operations, then, is significant — and dialogue among like-minded governments is essential.
France claims its disinformation isn’t Russia’s disinformation or China’s or Iran’s, according to a recently released defense strategy document. The country insists that it can carry out these active measures in a manner compliant with international law, “strictly limited” to the military context; the doctrine vows “respect for noninterference in peacetime.” The rationale is tempting: Allowing only terrorists and lawless regimes to exploit these techniques gives bad actors an advantage over those who devote themselves to defense alone. If responsible citizens can avail themselves of the same methods, they can — in Ms. Parly’s words — “win without fighting.”
There is ample reason, however, for caution. The world shouldn’t want to embark on an information arms race; fighting fire with fire in this case means fighting falsehoods with falsehoods — and ensuring an Internet whose users can trust even less of what they read. Democracies risk their credibility in fighting for free and fair elections at home when they undermine those very features in contests abroad. Democracies also risk their credibility as they ask social media sites to root out influence operations by adversaries. There very well may be rules that would guard against these harms without ceding all digital territory to the most ruthless, but drawing these lines brightly isn’t easy.
With its forthrightness, France has invited a conversation. There’s a perfect place to continue it. President Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December will bring together nations invested in openness, honesty and human rights. Defense against disinformation is sure to be on the agenda, but disinformation as offense ought to be, too. The answer may be to proceed with care, or the answer may be not to proceed at all. But the United States and its allies can’t find out without asking the question in the first place.