Deconstructing Democracy: An Examination of Disinformation Campaigns and the Effects on American Democratic Institutions

– Executive Summary

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there has been a surge in foreign and domestic disinformation (DI) campaigns online.[1] Primarily, nations such as Russia and China have weaponized information to incite division within the United States.[2] Such influence campaigns represent covert soft power techniques that allow these adversaries to achieve their political objectives covertly.[3] DI’s attractiveness as a weapon lies in its cost-effectiveness, minimal infrastructure requirements, and potency in exploiting vulnerabilities in socially divided societies.[4] The omnipresence of social media, combined with its algorithmic amplification and lack of oversight, intensifies DI’s reach.[5] Consequently, the United States remains susceptible to these campaigns, emphasizing a security policy gap in managing such threats.[6] This thesis explores the repercussions of DI operations on U.S. democracy and homeland security by starting with the following questions.

  1. To what extent have targeted DI campaigns contributed to the degradation of democracy in the United States?
  2. Furthermore, to what extent has the erosion of U.S. democratic institutions caused by DI created existential threats to the homeland?

Through a qualitative comparative approach, this thesis found the following. First, DI campaigns, both foreign and domestic, distort public perceptions and aim to create a post-truth society where distinguishing between fact and falsehood becomes a challenge, thereby benefiting the disseminators by weakening their adversaries. Second, technological advancements, especially on social media platforms, exacerbate DI’s reach and impact while domestic actors and nation-states amplify DI for personal and geopolitical gains. Third, the United States faces a nuanced erosion of democracy, intensified by societal polarization fueled by domestic DI operations. Fourth, this creeping democratic backsliding, combined with foreign state–sponsored DI campaigns, not only endangers democratic principles but also threatens national security. Fifth, although DI is a significant threat, it is crucial to understand it within the broader context of the pre-existing societal fractures it exploits. The research underscores the need to comprehensively address these interwoven challenges to secure the future of democracies, especially the United States.

The rise of anti-establishment sentiment and DI campaigns erodes objective truth, endangering democracy’s foundations. These compromises inform voting and productive debate, potentially fueling societal unrest and radical acts. Thus, this thesis offers the following policies for counteracting DI.

  • Government policy: Implement content accuracy and transparency regulations in political ads, ensuring no infringement on free speech.
  • Media responsibility: Mainstream media should prioritize fact-checking and transparency while social media platforms must revise algorithms and improve content moderation.
  • Public education: Embed media literacy and digital citizenship in curricula, emphasizing students’ discerning credible information and understanding platform mechanics.
  • Besides addressing DI, fortifying democracy is paramount, for which the following measures are suggested:
  • Government measures: Preserve electoral integrity, uphold legal standards, encourage bipartisan unity, and protect press and judicial independence.
  • Civics education: Teach citizens about governmental systems, cultivating critical-thinking and fostering active, respectful participation.

This thesis contributes to the homeland security enterprise by highlighting the escalating threat of both foreign and domestic DI to America’s national security, democracy, and social fabric. It offers frameworks to track the transformation of DI into campaigns that destabilize institutions and values, aiding in their detection and disruption. This work guides efforts to protect America’s democratic foundations from DI threats.

[1] Public–Private Analytic Exchange Program, Combatting Targeted Disinformation Campaigns: A Whole-of-Society Issue (Washington, DC: Public–Private Analytic Exchange Program, 2019), 2,

[2] Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “How Russian Hackers and Trolls Exploited U.S. Media in 2016,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 163, no. 2 (2019): 135, https://www.amphilsoc.‌org/‌sites/default/files/2020-03/attachments/Jamieson.pdf.

[3] Frank G. Hoffman, “Examining Complex Forms of Conflict,” PRISM 7, no. 4 (2018): 39,

[4] Raphael S. Cohen et al., Combating Foreign Disinformation on Social Media: Study Overview and Conclusions (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021), 37,‌reports/‌RR4373z1.html.

[5] Christina Nemr and William Gangware, Weapons of Mass Distraction: Foreign State–Sponsored Disinformation in the Digital Age (Washington, DC: Park Advisors, 2019), 11,; Yariv Tsfati et al., “Causes and Consequences of Mainstream Media Dissemination of Fake News: Literature Review and Synthesis,” Annals of the International Communication Association 44, no. 2 (2020): 158,

[6] Hoffman, “Examining Complex Forms of Conflict,” 36.

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