When the Internet came to be and brought people from different parts of the world together, two things were apparent. That people will be exposed to propaganda/opinions prevalent in other countries, and that eventually people may be targeted by propaganda coming from abroad. Clearly that's caused the Great FireWall to be and the scenario was practiced quite quickly.

It is apparent that the US realized this and was quite apparently expecting that some of its/Western values such as democracy, free speech, women's/minority rights would be passed to other countries via "internet osmosis" because it would turn out that content creators are predominantly Western whereas content consumers are a much wider audience. The US has also openly declared that the Arab Spring is caused, or at least reinforced, by the power of Internet.

However, in 2016 it became apparent that the US considers any amount of foreign propaganda which influences US domestic policy, such as elections, as an excessive and dangerous phenomenon. The Russian influence of American elections was considered inexcusable regardless of the absolute value of that influence, as if it was illegal. This seems to have caused a moral panic which continues to the present day.

My question is, why the US did not expect to be a collateral/target of other countries' Internet propaganda? Are there any actual (international) laws which would prevent foreign propaganda influence in domestic affairs?

It is apparent that in this case the US was not ready to put up a (propaganda) fight because it did not expect such fight at all. But why? It was obvious that it was an unavoidable consequence of free information exchange and then it was proven effective by the US as well.

  • 1
    Who says they didn't expect it? "We didn't expect that" and "We think that's bad" are two entirely different things. Apr 13 at 14:52
  • It didn't look like they had a plan for it, and they seem to be showing that off as a virtue - nonetheless I've changed wording.
    – alamar
    Apr 13 at 15:15
  • 2
    The nature of US politics means that governments often don't actually prepare for things they expect, especially if the preparation costs money. Apr 13 at 15:16
  • Care to turn that comment into an answer?
    – alamar
    Apr 13 at 15:17

1 Answer 1


Two different questions here:

Who did expect what, when?

I'm old enough to remember (just barely) an age when the internet was mostly used by academic institutions and their users. And how that changed. The older generation moaned about uncultured newbies. I dare say that the speed and the scope of the expansion of "the internet" has surprised even many experts and visionaries. And those who were right had often just guessed right by inflating their claims beyond reasonable expectations.

Black, Gray, or White Propaganda?

White propaganda is propaganda which openly displays the origin. "This message was brought to you by Voice of America, and if you didn't know VoA is funded by the US government, that's because you didn't bother to look." Gray propaganda hides the origin and black propaganda actively lies about the origin.

Western governments produce a lot of white propaganda. One might argue that some Western media is gray propaganda for some Western governments. That falls under soft power and they are in fact proud of it. But Western governments are often indignant about Troll farms and other forms of black propaganda. To them, a systematic, government-organized campaign which deceives about the origin is fundamentally different from a campaign which openly admits the origin.

But should they have expected that?

Maybe. The effect of troll farms and similar approaches was enabled/magnified by the selection algorithms of "social" media, which earns money from keeping the attention of consumers on advertising. They found that controversial, grievance-stoking content is better at keeping attention than consensus-building content. The idea that Western-based corporations would take money to sabotage the Western political system might have come to the attention of regulators sooner. But would the benefits of regulation/censorship be worth the negative consequences?

Legally, black propaganda on social media platforms would often be a violation of their terms of service, even if similar content as white propaganda would be OK. But violating foreign terms of service at the order of your government is usually no crime where you live -- just like Russia would jail American spies (unless they have diplomatic immunity), while America gives them medals. Spying on Russia for the US government is not a crime under American law.

  • I also wonder if there's any legal basis for action to be taken against black (or gray) propaganda by making the originating country (and not e.g. Facebook) accountable.
    – alamar
    Apr 13 at 15:34
  • 1
    @alamar, accountable in what court?
    – o.m.
    Apr 13 at 15:43
  • Accountable according to some agreements that both countries could have signed.
    – alamar
    Apr 13 at 16:42
  • @alamar so you expect, for example, Russia to send its spies over to America to be jailed?
    – user253751
    Apr 14 at 9:48
  • @user253751 There's a legal basis for Russia not sending its spies to be jailed in America. It is explicit and a part of Russian Federation's consitution.
    – alamar
    Apr 14 at 9:56

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