A growing disregard for the conditions that form the foundations of democracy—including respect for the rights of minorities and migrants, space for critical dissent, and commitment to the rule of law—threatens to destabilize the democratic order. At the same time, prioritizing a narrow support base at the expense of ensuring fundamental freedoms for all, and neglecting to tie democratic principles to foreign policy, leaves democracies vulnerable to interference from authoritarian regimes, which have increased repression at home and abroad.
Strengthen and Protect Core Values
Respect, protect, and fulfill human rights at home. Attacks by elected leaders on democratic institutions—including the press, an independent judiciary, and anti-corruption agencies—and on the rights of minorities and migrants undermine faith in democracy around the world. Democratic leaders should demonstrate respect for fundamental norms at home by adhering to domestic legislation in line with international human rights laws and standards, and refraining from rhetoric that undermines these standards.
Strengthen public support for democratic principles by investing in civic education. To protect freedom domestically and build support for a foreign policy that protects democratic rights and values abroad, it is essential to foster a stronger public understanding of democratic principles, especially among young people. In the United States, new legislation could require each state to develop basic content and benchmarks of achievement for civic education, including instruction on the fundamental tenets of US democracy. In the absence of new legislation, the US Department of Education should, to the extent possible, make funding available to states for civic education that focuses on democratic principles.
Restrict the export of sophisticated surveillance tools to unfree countries, and require businesses exporting dual-use technologies to report on the human rights impact of those products. Technologies such as facial-recognition surveillance, social media monitoring, and targeted interception or collection of data equip authoritarian governments with new and robust power to violate fundamental rights. The sale of such technologies—including those that use machine learning, natural-language processing, and deep learning—should be restricted for countries rated Partly Free or Not Free by any Freedom House publication. Businesses exporting dual-use technologies (those with both civilian and military purposes) should be required to report annually on the impact of their exports, including by disclosing the countries to which they have exported such technologies, potential human rights concerns in those countries, a summary of pre-export due diligence undertaken to ensure that the products are not misused, any human rights violations that have occurred as a result of the use or potential use of their technologies, and any efforts undertaken to mitigate the harm done and prevent further abuse
Prevent election interference. Efforts should include protecting elections from cyberattacks through the use of paper ballots and election audits, and improving transparency and oversight of online political advertisements. In the United States, Congress should pass and the president should sign the Honest Ads Act (S. 1356/H.R. 2592), which would modernize existing laws by applying disclosure requirements to online political advertising.
Strengthen laws that guard against foreign influence over government officials. Legislative proposals requiring greater transparency about officials’ personal finances and campaign donations, more rigorous standards for the disclosure of conflicts of interest, and the establishment of a clear code of conduct for engagement with foreign officials can help insulate governments from foreign attempts to subvert democratic institutions. In the United States, this could include passing legislation to enforce the principles of the constitution’s foreign emoluments clause, closing loopholes in rules on reporting foreign influence, and modernizing financial disclosure requirements for elected officials.
Prevent corrupt foreign officials from laundering stolen assets through democracies. Corrupt actors steal more than $3 trillion annually from their home countries, the effects of which undermine institutions critical to democracy and harm economic growth in these countries. Stolen funds are routinely funneled through international financial markets, laundered via seemingly legitimate purchases in democratic nations. These practices pose a risk to the reputations of companies unwittingly involved and to financial markets overall. Democracies should strengthen transparency laws to ensure that accurate identifying information about purchasers and their funding sources is available. Governments should ensure robust enforcement of laws and investigate and prosecute violators when necessary. In the United States, lawmakers should advance proposed measures like the Corporate Transparency Act (H.R. 2513) and the similar ILLICIT CASH Act (S. 2563), which would prohibit corrupt actors from hiding behind shell corporations by requiring the disclosure of true, beneficial owners.
Make the fight against kleptocracy and international corruption a key priority. In the United States, the proposed CROOK Act (H.R. 3843) would establish an action fund that would offer financial assistance to foreign countries during historic windows of opportunity for anticorruption reforms. Another draft law, the Combating Global Corruption Act (S. 1309) would require the US government to assess corruption around the world and produce a tiered list of countries. US foreign assistance directed at the lowest-tiered countries would require specific risk assessments and anticorruption mechanisms, such as provisions to recover funds that are misused.
Increase transparency requirements for foreign state-owned propaganda outlets operating in democratic states. Outlets like Russia’s RT and China’s CGTN spread government-approved narratives without clearly disclosing that they are government financed. Measures to improve transparency could include reporting requirements for media outlets’ spending on paid advertorials (advertisements designed to resemble an independent, objective news article), ownership structures, and other economic ties to repressive state actors.
Require social media companies to report foreign efforts to spread online disinformation and propaganda. Social media companies should be required to report regularly to target governments on efforts by foreign governments and nonstate actors to manipulate public opinion and undercut democratic values by spreading disinformation and propaganda on their platforms. In the United States, the government should assess which entities would be the most appropriate to receive these reports, since this information is of interest across jurisdictions, including to intelligence agencies, Congress, the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of Justice. The US government should carefully decide on the types and sizes of social media companies required to comply, the data they must submit, and appropriate penalties for noncompliance. The entity receiving the information should report findings regularly to the public and make the data publicly available, while ensuring the protection of users’ privacy.
Address the use of bots on social media. Bots (automated accounts pretending to be real people) can be used to distort the online media environment by rapidly spreading false information, fomenting discord, and drowning out independent reporting and factual information. Democracies should address the use of bots in social media manipulation. In the United States, the proposed Bot Disclosure and Accountability Act (S. 2125) would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to require the conspicuous and public disclosure of bots intended to replicate human activity.
Improve transparency and oversight of online political advertisements. In the United States, the Honest Ads Act (S.1356/H.R.2592) would modernize existing law by applying disclosure requirements to campaign advertising and requiring large digital platforms to maintain a public file of all electioneering communications that includes a copy of each ad, when it was published, its target audience, the number of views generated, and the contact information of the purchaser. The Honest Ads Act would also require platforms that distribute political ads to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that they are not being purchased by foreign actors, directly or indirectly.
Address the use of bots in social media manipulation. In the United States, the Bot Disclosure and Accountability Act (S.2125) would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to require the conspicuous and public disclosure of bots intended to replicate human activity. The legislation would also prohibit candidates, campaigns, and political organizations from using such bots, particularly to disguise political advertising or otherwise deceive voters by giving false impressions of support from actual users.
Protect elections from cyberattacks with paper ballots and election audits. According to the recommendations of the bipartisan report on Russian interference in the 2016 election released by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, paper ballots ensure votes have a verifiable paper trail, while risk-limiting audits help ensure the accuracy of results. In the United States, the Protecting American Votes and Election Act (S.1472/H.R.2754) would mandate the use of paper ballots and audits in federal elections, and provide funding for states to purchase new ballot-scanning machines.
For the Private Sector
Develop rapid response teams to address cybersecurity and disinformation incidents around elections. Ahead of significant elections and referendums in countries around the world, social media companies and other content providers should create specialized teams that anticipate digital interference, and devise strategies to prevent interference tactics and mitigate their effects. When designing and implementing new tools to address cybersecurity and disinformation, companies should communicate openly about what new policies they may be putting in place ahead of elections, and engage with local civil society organizations that can provide expertise on the political and cultural contexts in which companies work.
Ensure political advertisements are transparent and adhere to strict content standards. Companies should rigorously vet political advertisements before they are posted on their platforms to ensure legitimate association with domestic actors and compliance with applicable electoral laws. Companies should also clearly identify who has purchased each advertisement.
Improve information sharing among social media companies and between public and private sectors. As recommended by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in its bipartisan report on Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the 2016 US election, social media companies should improve and formalize mechanisms that allow them to share information about malicious activity and potential vulnerabilities on their platforms amongst themselves and with governments. This will allow faster and more effective responses to foreign disinformation campaigns and other forms of interference, which often span multiple platforms. Social media users should be notified when they may have been exposed to such foreign activity, and be given information necessary to understand the malicious nature of the content.
Policy Recommendations: Strengthening Democracy in Europe and Eurasia
Strengthen and protect core values
1. Ensure that political leaders promote democratic values and the protection of human rights through their own words and actions. COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the importance of public trust in democratic institutions and elected leaders, exposing weaknesses in many established democracies. When senior officials in such countries attack the press, the judiciary, or other institutions, they further undermine faith in democracy around the world. Political leaders should demonstrate respect for fundamental norms at home by adhering to the relevant domestic legislation and parallel international human rights standards, and by refraining from rhetoric that contradicts those standards. Doing so will give them greater credibility and present a positive model for individuals still struggling to bring democracy to their countries.
2. Make the promotion of democracy and human rights a priority in bilateral relations, focusing attention and funding on countries at critical junctures. While economic deals and financial assistance can jumpstart cooperation and help people on the ground, it is crucial to incorporate democracy and human rights considerations into such agreements. Special attention should be paid to countries undergoing significant governance transitions, including Armenia and Ukraine, as well as those in the Balkans and Central Europe that are backsliding.
- In Central Europe, make funding conditional on respecting democratic values and push on key areas related to the rule of law and media freedom. Given the EU’s lack of success to date in addressing autocratization in Hungary and Poland, member states should adopt a simple and uniformly applicable method for making EU funding conditional on respect for democratic values. The upcoming German presidency should also restart monitoring of the rule of law, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, in Hungary and Poland. The United States could generate broader benefits for democracy through targeted funding programs that support media freedom, including the return of Radio Free Liberty/Radio Liberty to the region.
- In the Balkans, prioritize long-term democratic progress over short-term political and economic considerations. Despite a number of successful political deals and technical progress toward accession to the EU, Nations in Transit has recorded democratic deterioration in the region, especially in Serbia and Montenegro. The revamping of the accession process can serve as opportunity: membership might not be on immediate offer, but the EU should make sure that it remains a credible partner in the meantime, including for Kosovo, and that good governance and democracy criteria remain frontloaded in the process. The recent renewal of engagement by the United States was a much-needed step, but to secure lasting results Washington needs to work in close cooperation with European allies and reintegrate its traditional foreign policy emphasis on democracy.
- In Ukraine, support participatory, transparent, and accountable governance. Assistance and support from the United States and European governments have played a crucial role and should continue to bolster Ukraine’s progress. Policymakers should prioritize programs meant to fight corruption; they should also closely monitor limitations on freedom of expression, making sure that any restrictions adopted are necessary and proportionate. In addition, to keep Ukraine’s democracy safe and healthy, democratic partners should back initiatives that strengthen independent oversight of security services and that work toward preventing and responding to hate-motivated violence against vulnerable communities.
The Chinese Communist Party has expanded its efforts to shape news content around the world using three main strategies: promoting its own narratives through various forms of propaganda, suppressing critical viewpoints through direct and indirect censorship, and obtaining control over key content-delivery systems.
Counter the negative impact of Beijing’s foreign media influence campaigns
Increase transparency. Governments should adopt or enforce policies that enhance publicly available information about Chinese media influence activities in their countries. These could include reporting requirements for media outlets’ spending on paid advertorials, ownership structures, and other economic ties to Chinese state actors. In the United States, the Department of Justice should expand recent requests for information of this kind from CGTN and Xinhua to other state or state-affiliated media outlets, especially the Chinese-language CCTV.
Impose penalties for transgressions by Chinese officials. When Chinese diplomats and security agents overstep their bounds and attempt to interfere with media reporting in other countries, the host government should vigorously protest, warning that such behavior may violate diplomatic protocols. If the act in question is repeated or particularly egregious, the host government should consider declaring the offenders persona non grata.
Scrutinize international censorship and surveillance by Chinese-owned companies. Parliaments in democracies should hold hearings to better understand the scope, nature, and impact of politicized censorship and surveillance on Tencent’s WeChat platform, ByteDance’s TikTok, and Chinese-made mobile phone browsers, then explore avenues for pressuring the company in question to uphold users’ rights to free expression and privacy. Politicians who choose to use WeChat, TikTok, or other Chinese-owned platforms to communicate with constituents should monitor messaging closely to detect any manipulation, register their accounts with international phone numbers when possible, and republish messages on parallel international social media platforms.
Tighten and enforce broadcasting regulations. Media regulators should revise or better enforce their broadcasting rules to curb abusive practices by Chinese state media and related companies, such as the airing of forced confessions by prisoners of conscience or the manipulation of media distribution infrastructure in which the companies have acquired an ownership stake. Regulatory agencies should conduct investigations into potential violations and impose conditions on purchases and mergers to address conflicts of interest.
Support independent Chinese-language media. Media development funders should ensure that exile and diaspora outlets are included in projects that offer funding, training, and other assistance opportunities to Chinese-language media. Governments should proactively engage with such outlets, providing interviews and exploring other potential partnerships, while resisting pressure from Chinese diplomats to marginalize them. Funders should provide technical and financial support to strengthen cybersecurity among independent Chinese-language outlets.
Discuss responses with democratic counterparts. Diplomats, media regulators, lawmakers, and others should regularly discuss China’s foreign media influence tactics and best-practice responses as part of the agenda at bilateral and multilateral meetings among democratic governments. A growing number of governments and other actors are engaging in initiatives to mitigate the problem, and these are likely to yield new lessons and more effective tools. Organized sharing of the resulting knowledge will magnify its impact and encourage the adoption of practices that are both fit to purpose and consistent with democratic values.
The rise of modern authoritarianism over the past two decades has been accompanied by an expansion in corruption and kleptocracy, which poses a significant threat to democracy around the world. The theft of public funds gives corrupt elites both the incentive and the means to consolidate power and suppress voices of opposition. Corruption undermines the freedom and the interests of ordinary citizens, and the effects are especially harmful in developing countries with limited resources and weaker anticorruption mechanisms.
Kleptocrats and other corrupt foreign officials frequently exploit the United States’ open financial system by funneling stolen funds into and through US markets. They benefit from loopholes in current law that permit this sort of money laundering, most often by employing anonymous shell corporations and the purchase of luxury real estate. Kleptocrats also take advantage of the security provided by democratic jurisdictions, particularly the United States’ privacy protections.
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