The Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Authoritarian Interference Tracker maps and catalogs over 400 instances of Russian state-sponsored efforts to undermine democracy in over 40 countries. The Tracker documents five tools authoritarian regimes use to conduct these operations—cyberattacks, information operations, malign finance, political and social subversion, and strategic economic coercion—and highlights the inter-connectivity of these tools.
The Tracker has always been a living platform. We have continuously updated the database to add new cases related to the activity of the Russian government and its proxies. And we are currently compiling cases of China’s efforts to undermine democracy beyond its borders that we plan to add to the Tracker later this year.
In our efforts to develop the China database for the Tracker, we conducted a careful review of the existing literature on tools of authoritarian interference to assess the methodology of how we document cases in the Tracker, our definitions of the tools used to these ends, and their inclusion in our dataset to ensure that the tool and its definitions apply to authoritarian regimes beyond Russia. Therefore, as we prepare to add China-related cases to the Tracker, we are updating the platform with revised names and definitions of the five tools. We are also further refining our existing data on Russian state-sponsored interference to ensure that cases in the Tracker demonstrate a clear nexus to efforts to undermine democracy.
Revised definitions can be found at the end of this post, but the three most notable changes are:
- We have updated our definition of malign finance to focus on actions directly aimed at interfering in democracies. While international corruption, money laundering, and other financial malfeasance undoubtably injures the fabric of any society, we want to ensure that all cases documented in the Tracker can be linked to specific attempts by authoritarian regimes to interfere in democratic processes. Thus, we have removed cases involving corruption or money laundering without a nexus to authoritarian interference in democracy.
- We have reframed “information operations” as “information manipulation.” This better reflects the tactics authoritarian regimes use in the information space; some cases involve the spread of disinformation using social media accounts that mask the links to an authoritarian regime, while others use more overt channels like state-sponsored media organizations. Ultimately, the goal of these operations is to manipulate public opinion and public debate in the target country.
- We have changed our designation of “political and social subversion” to “civil society subversion.” This reflects the fact that political subversion involves actors associated with authoritarian regimes providing material support—either financial or in-kind—to political parties, candidates, and other politically influential groups. As a result, we now categorize such cases of subversion under the malign finance tool. The remaining cases that would fall under “social subversion” have been reconstituted as “civil society subversion,” reflecting the malign actor’s intent to disrupt the social cohesion of the target country by exploiting and targeting factions of civil society in that country.
These adjustments have also slightly altered the total number of cases cataloged in the Tracker. Most of the changes to the existing dataset affect the number of malign finance cases; however, we want to emphasize again that the Tracker is a living platform. As new instances of Russian—and eventually Chinese—state-sponsored efforts to undermine democracy emerge, the number of cases in the Tracker’s database will grow.
As always, we welcome suggestions from the research community as to how we can further improve our methodology.
The re-defined tools in the Authoritarian Interference Tracker are:
- Cyber Operations: The probing or penetration of computer networks or connected systems and devices to surreptitiously steal, alter, or collect data and/or to disrupt, manipulate, damage, or erode confidence in organizations, institutions, and processes.
Cyber operations are included if they are publicly attributed to the Russian or Chinese governments; their ruling parties; or to individuals, entities, or proxies acting at their behest. These entries provide representative examples of how cyber operations undermine democratic institutions or processes, such as faith in governments, critical infrastructure (to include election systems), and civil society actors.
- Information Manipulation: The coordinated use of social or traditional media to manipulate and influence public debate by deliberately spreading or amplifying information that is false, misleading, or distorted, and/or engaging in deceptive practices like masking or misrepresenting the provenance or intent of content, and/or intentionally suppressing information.
Cases of information manipulation are included if they are perpetrated by individuals or organizations funded by or connected to the Russian or Chinese governments, their ruling parties, or their proxies, such as overseas media holdings that mask their links. These entries provide representative examples of the outlets, narratives, and issues used to undermine democratic institutions and processes.
- Malign Finance: The funding of foreign political parties, candidates, campaigns, well-connected elites, or politically influential groups, often through non-transparent structures designed to obfuscate ties to a nation state or its proxies.
Cases of malign finance are included if they are perpetrated by individuals, entities, or proxies, such as purportedly independent banks or businesspeople, with links to the Russian or Chinese governments or their ruling parties. Cases included are representative examples of how malign finance undermines democratic institutions or processes by surreptitiously influencing political debate, decision-making, electoral outcomes, and societal cohesion.
- Economic Coercion: The use of commercial, financial, or other economic tools and resources for foreign political purposes, including to establish dependencies that influence foreign governments, entities, or individuals.
Cases of economic coercion are included if they are perpetrated by the Russian or Chinese governments, their ruling parties, their state-owned enterprises, or their purportedly private enterprises used to carry out foreign policy objectives. Cases included are representative examples of how economic coercion undermines democratic institutions or processes.
- Civil Society Subversion: The hijacking or co-option of foreign social movements, organizations, diaspora communities, advocacy groups, or other civil society entities through non-transparent or seditious means to amplify political and social cleavages, promote extremism, or otherwise divide target societies.
Cases of civil society subversion are included if they are perpetrated by individuals or entities linked to the Russian or Chinese governments, their ruling parties, or their proxies. Cases included provide representative examples of how civil society subversion undermines democratic institutions or processes.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.