Transcript: Statecraft in the Digital Era: Key Moments
On May 25, 2022, the Canada School of Public Service hosted a panel featuring Fergus Hanson, Farhaan Ladhani and Joe Wang. They provided an overview of how states are evolving the use of digital tools to engage with purpose and advance their interests when reaching out to global populations, stakeholders and governments.
Theme 1: The Digital Era
[Fergus' panel fills the screen. As he speaks, a title card slides in reading "Fergus Hanson, Director, International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI)".]
Fergus Hanson: The digital era to me is one that's a tool through which to achieve objectives. So we have had the fax era, the steamship era, the printing press and now we are in a digital era. On the one hand, we shouldn't be too freaked out about a different way of doing business. But there are, quite a few differences as well. It's the pace of change that is really, really radically different from the previous eras we have been in. Getting into some of the complexity of the digital era I think is more of a specialist skill. I think everybody needs to get their head around it that we are going through a transition period where people, some people haven't grown up with those—that was an intuitive part of the way they live and breathe. And then I think there is also this complete fusion between the offline and the online.
Theme 2: The Challenges of the Digital Era
[Farhaan's panel fills the screen. As he speaks, a title card slides in reading "Farhaan Ladhani, CEO, Digital Public Square".]
Farhaan Ladhani: We have to acknowledge we have a problem on a couple of different fronts. One is: are we delivering the value we keep saying we are going to in terms of governance and responsiveness to our societies? And I would ask us to really look hard at this question of responsiveness. Your expectations today on responsiveness on so many things around you has manifestly grown. Your expectation to respond to an e-mail from work is in the order of two hours; to get a text message back from one of your friends is like two minutes. So when we are delivering services for society, when we are seeking to engage them and try to understand their grievances and try to understand their pain, our ability to both listen and respond needs to manifestly improve to the society in which we live today. That shortens the feedback cycle. But if you can get that right and get that feedback cycle right in an open society, well, all of a sudden that enables you to have a footing to build more trust. So I think that's one of the things we are beset by; the technology has accelerated on the challenge side pretty significantly. The technology on the responsiveness side I think is really improved in the commercial space. The question is, has it actually improved on the governance space because it doesn't seem to be being innovated in our societies at nearly the same rate as the challenges are.
[Joe's panel fills the screen. As he speaks, a title card slides in reading "Joe Wang, Head of Foreign Policy, Special Competitive Studies Project".]
Joe Wang: There has to be a difference between how we handle foreign generated, maligned influenced campaigns and disinformation versus the internal echo chamber we have here at home. The counter to these different — disinformation campaigns really is — we need to have a narrative about how we stand up after we fall down. That's the part that I think again, the speed of how we do that is one of the problems with government. We just can't lie. We do need to put together a truthful narrative so that's part of the tradecraft we need to work on better is how do we get out a more positive message quicker and make sure people know what we're doing.
Fergus Hanson: We see this really vividly in the Ukraine crisis. Zelensky has been so successful because he has had a constant stream of Ukrainian messaging that has drowned out any attempts by Russia to message us. As democracies, we tend to be a little bit shy with our communications and we think, well, we'll just say something when we need to say something important and otherwise we will just remain silent. That stated the information environment — to misinformation and disinformation So I think we have to overcome our reticence to communicate and really be much more forward leaning as societies to communicate with our publics, to communicate internationally. I'm not saying go down the pathway of making stuff up and spreading disinformation, but we have to be proactive in spreading positive messages, good messages, getting our points over and not just ceding the ground.
Theme 3: The Differences Between Democracies and Authoritarian States in the Digital Era
Farhaan Ladhani: One of the things that really differentiates, I believe, the way that open societies work is the governance around the implementation of these tools and technologies and the way in which we put in oversight mechanisms and the way in which we can engage the public on the use of certain types of tools and technologies and actually listen to what they have to say. I think that the public safety part of this dimension, can be easily manipulated and leveraged to identify individuals and eliminate them. And that same technology that has the positive potential effect has a negative consequence. But our desire to identify methods of oversight and review — consideration of a deployment of that technology and engaging the public on understanding how it's being used and why its being used — differentiates us, and that's exactly where trust is built in a very open and transparent way.
Joe Wang: I think we as open democratic societies still have something that autocracies like China and Russia don't. People around the world don't think of becoming Chinese. They don't dream about becoming Russian. But they still dream about becoming western, American, Canadian. There is some secret sauce we need to really realize about what our societies mean to people around the world. And it's not just about the hard power elements of this competition. There has to be a lot more work we need to do on the soft power elements to make sure we continue to inspire people around the world to look to us as that model of both governments but also that model of life they aspire to.
Theme 4: The Competition between Democracies and Authoritarian States in the Digital Era
Fergus Hanson: We have to be really sharp edged and not afraid to engage with some of the trickier challenges that have been thrown at us by authoritarians. We have to think much more robustly about messaging, for example, from Chinese diplomats and officials when they are spouting out deliberate conspiracy theories and flagrantly putting out lies. We have to think about how to counter foreign interference in our democratic systems and make it harder for them to operate in that manipulative, covert, offline environment and transfer that into the online environment. So we need to be hard edged about that and talk about it in our public discussions. We shouldn't just pretend because they don't want to us talk about it that we should somehow be silent. We have to be open with our publics about talking about what the problem is and the reasonable steps we are taking to counter it.
Farhaan Ladhani: In authoritarian societies, silence is golden. That's not true here. It doesn't have to be true here. Getting people to actually talk to you and tell you a little bit about what they are upset about, what would make their lives better, is an immensely powerful tool that you have in your arsenal every single day. You have a whole array of potential partners and stakeholders that you get a chance to engage with after you genuinely understand what bothers them, concerns them, what their issues are with the services or policies and programs. And then enable those people to actually equip them with the right materials to share with the community that trusts them. That way you are starting to increase the scope of trust between your institution and a wider array of people that might otherwise not be aware of what you are doing to service Canadians, or for whom your services aren't perfectly tuned and allows you to refine them. Anyone can do this starting tomorrow.
Joe Wang: The reality is that none of us can do this on our own. Because, again, of the scale of the challenge we see in China and the scale of the economic investment they can put into all of this given the way their system works. So, you know, we do have a number of recommendations. We talk a lot about how to build this favourable technological order around the world and we see a lot of us having already. The U.S. does a lot through NATO. NATO issued their AI strategy last year. There are a number of initiatives that NATO invest in technology for the alliance collectively as an alliance. There is the QUAD meeting that happened this week where the leaders came together and announced working together to invest in different technologies we need to compete around the world. And one of the ideas that I do really love as well is just the need to deepen the people to people connections between and among democracies.
For the entire event, go to: https://www.csps-efpc.gc.ca/events/digital-world-series/index-eng.aspx
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