Nieubuurt on Sloss, 'Tyrants on Twitter: Protecting Democracies from Information Warfare'

David Sloss
Joshua Nieubuurt

David Sloss. Tyrants on Twitter: Protecting Democracies from Information Warfare. Stanford Studies in Law and Politics Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022. Illustrations, tables. xvii + 330 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-2844-1

Reviewed by Joshua Nieubuurt (University of Maryland Global Campus) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (March, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version:

Information warfare (IW) in the twenty-first century has become a major issue facing democracies across the globe. In Tyrants on Twitter: Protecting Democracies from Information Warfare, David L. Sloss focuses on how legislation may help stem the tide of nefarious authoritarian state actors. Sloss posits that IW in the twenty-first century is allowing democratic decay and that an allied transnational front based on common legislation is a necessary step in equalizing the playing field. Sloss specifically focuses on state agents of Russia and China, calling for limitations on known state actors and eliminating malevolent agents' ability to use the tools of social media to generate and share mis/disinformation. Sloss's proposed legislation calls for the following: an international registration system, a range of public and private account potentials offered by social media companies, a ban on known state agents hailing from China and Russia, disclosure requirements for non-state actors living in China and Russia, and technological tools. In short, Sloss seeks to make subverting the aforementioned tactics more difficult and expensive for those looking to use social media for malevolent ends.

Part 1 of the book, "Diagnosis" (chapters 1-5), begins by mapping the contemporary digital realities of IW in the twenty-first century. Sloss carefully supplies and analyzes broad swaths of data to display the growing disparity between liberal democracies and autocracies in the real world as well as within online spaces. Sloss then focuses on some of the most prevalent tactics of IW and the various ways these digital spaces are used, manipulated, and obfuscated to the common user. Such actions include hacking and dumping, engaging in social media influence operations, and operating fake accounts, among others. Sloss focuses on how these tactics are being used by China and Russia to alter the discursive realities of liberal democracies across the globe. In doing so, he sets up three categories to display the necessity of his legislative position: Russia and the United States, Russia and Europe, and finally China versus the globe. Each section notes tactics and presumes the authoritarian state actor's roles within a localized and globalized position while noting that the evidence of direct, top-down interaction is rather opaque. After discussing the known (or presumed) actions of nefarious state actors, Sloss then applies his legislative prescription toward the problem.

Part 2, "Prescription" (chapters 6-8), connects real-world events to Sloss's proposed legislation and carefully investigates costs and benefits of implementation. Continually referring to the content in chapters 1 through 5, the author lays out how his proposed legislation could aid in tackling the aforementioned state actors and their toolbox of prevalent tactics. He also hones in on where legislation could meet some friction from citizens, governments, and lawmaking bodies. The legislation is intended to create a transnational allied movement of countries adhering to liberal democratic praxis and ideology countering the devastating effects of state sponsored IW specifically hailing from Russia and China. The legislation proposes that online social media companies with over fifty million monthly users must adhere to the transnational legislation's following points: a registration system for public social media accounts that includes some form of national identification, an opt-out clause for social media users who do not wish to post publicly, disclaimers for material being posted publicly from benign agents within China and Russia, complete banning of known or presumed authoritarian state agents or people hailing from Russia and China, and a call for increased technological tools to hinder circumventing the legislative requirements. The section nears its conclusion by taking a closer look at the costs and benefits, specifically regulation, speech rights, administrative costs, and privacy and anonymity rights. Finally, the proposed legislation is considered within the United States' own legislative domain, particularly around what Sloss deems to be the biggest hurdle: the First Amendment.

Sloss makes a strong case, but there are factors that linger along the edges of the work. He is keen to note the limitations of his proposed legislation and areas where it may face resistance both at home (in the United States) and abroad. Throughout the "Diagnosis" section of the book, Sloss admits that there are no smoking guns when it comes to IW in online spaces. Without clear-cut and definitive evidence of direct foreign information, operations of such legislative action may prove to be an impossibility. In addition, although many forms of IW praxis are mentioned, the focus of this piece is on foreign state actors and their potential to increase democratic decay. Perhaps discovering, studying, and applying countermeasures (which Sloss advocates for as well) could prove to be a double-edged sword in which proof of concept could aid in less invasive legislation for citizens and social network users within the proposed transnational community as well as those outside of it.

One more key question raised by the proposition is the fiscal and human-power cost to bring such a massive change into fruition. Sloss notes time and again that such actions could potentially be worth the cost but fails to determine an estimated dollar amount or the number of people (and time) it would take to set up and manage such a large network of data. This raises another point that is not fully fleshed out. Despite being a prevalent topic throughout the work, the potential for users' privacy being infringed upon by bad actors among those managing the data and day-to-day operations (those in government and/or in the corporate realm) is only very briefly mentioned, but Sloss holds an optimistic viewpoint and a high level of trust in such problems being outliers.

Overall the book is a fantastic reference and shines in its ability to analyze and map out the contemporary digital IW landscape in relation to China and Russia. It is also a brilliant guide to exploring and explaining the legislative nuances necessary to consider such legislative action within the United States. The book has been well sourced and includes a succinct but helpful glossary of terms. Its ability to maintain a global narrative while honing in on the role large legislation could potentially play to an individual is an impressive feature of the work. Furthermore, it also includes a proposed statutory text to display how such legislation could be crafted if adapted. In total, Tyrants on Twitter offers an informative look into the IW landscape of today and a potential path toward reinforcing safeguards against foreign media manipulation from outside aggressors and rivals through transnational legislative efforts.

Citation: Joshua Nieubuurt. Review of Sloss, David, Tyrants on Twitter: Protecting Democracies from Information Warfare. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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