On January 21, 2015, Svetlana Davydova was arrested and charged with treason under Article 275 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. She was accused of divulging secret military operations that “could have been used against Russian national security.” As it happened, in April 2014, Davydova had spotted a military convoy near her home in Smolensk Oblast’, reasoned that it was headed for Ukraine, and called the Ukrainian embassy to report the convoy’s whereabouts. After her neighbors tattled on her, the Federal Security Service (FSB) came calling. However, the charge of treason created a metaphysical paradox, because at the time, in the world constructed by Kremlin-aligned media, there were no Russian troops in Ukraine. How, then, could Davydova have betrayed her country by revealing a military unit’s position to the adversary . . . when there was no adversary, and there was no unit? The Kremlin, realizing the mutually exclusive nature of the charges vis-à-vis the party line, hastily released Davydova on February 3, after which it became known on March 13 that all charges against her were dropped.
In November 2022, as we near the ninth month of all-out war between Russia and Ukraine and the ninth year since Russia first invaded Ukraine, this episode perfectly encapsulates the miasmatic senility within which the Kremlin wallows—and within which it has attempted to force the victims of its information war efforts to shamble for eight years. Since 2014, the Kremlin’s strategy in the information war has been one of confounding polyphony. Gone is the painstaking, surgical precision of KGB disinformation campaigns, replaced by a tsunami of cheap, sloppy, easily disproven falsehoods designed not to take over the marketplace of ideas, but to burn it down, to erode trust in democratic institutions, and, critically, to keep audiences on the edge of hysteria. The purpose of the Kremlin’s information war efforts domestically and abroad has been not simply to sow distrust, but to convince audiences to stop believing in the bare existence of truth—the apotheosis of postmodernism gone wrong. It has been a campaign to export a hallmark of authoritarianism wherein mutually exclusive ideas are peddled simultaneously—e.g., our enemies are simultaneously strong and weak, treacherously devious and laughably foolish, in accordance with what we need them to be on any given day.
This modern (or postmodern) hydra of disinformation is a many-headed, self-regenerating beast requiring multipronged, interdisciplinary countermeasures. Democracies worldwide have been experimenting with different approaches, metaphorical vaccines and sera to disinformation, including state-run fact-checking operations, strategic communications, cross-sector funding and collaboration, and media literacy initiatives. However, despite an array of regulatory steps, most nations have shied away from passing legislation targeting disinformation spread. Only a few have implemented legal interventions, and they have done so to varying degrees of success, typically in the face of political headwinds and without a clear understanding of the social, technological, and cognitive causal chains the laws would trigger. Nevertheless, tailored legislation remains a viable countermeasure to disinformation and the information war efforts of the West’s geopolitical adversaries. The issue is that the few enacted laws have not been appraised in an empirically sound manner, and countries will be reticent to consider further counter-disinformation legal interventions without understanding the causal chains of the legislation already in effect. Such (understandable) reticence would deprive the West of a potentially important counter-disinformation tool.
The solution to this dilemma may lie in international public health policy, where legal epidemiology—“the study of law as a factor in the cause, distribution, and prevention of disease and injury”—has been a burgeoning methodology for the past several years. Even without the obvious relationship between disinformation and public health that came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic, and ignoring the easy-fitting biological framing of the spread of (dis)information, legal epidemiology’s bridging between lawyers, policymakers, practitioners, and scholars is precisely the remedy that the fledgling realm of counter-disinformation legislation needs.
In particular, scholars of counter-disinformation policy should adopt and implement the Identifying Data for the Empirical Assessment of Law (IDEAL) method to evaluate the effectiveness, causal pathways, and outcomes of implemented counter-disinformation laws. IDEAL, developed by a team of public health scholars and lawyers to evaluate health outcomes of abortion regulations, is used to “form . . . a causal logic model setting out events and outcomes that may plausibly occur assuming key facts that can and should be investigated in future research.” The models’ “value lies in identifying evidence that can be useful in making tentative inferences about legal effects in the absence of direct evidence, and in pointing to important research questions.” “The IDEAL method attempts to create an objective framework for crystallising the various influences and consequences attributable to the impact of specific . . . restrictions, leading to the identification of untapped scientific evidence on plausible effects of the law.” Absent direct evidence, the IDEAL method “can also serve a precautionary role” by shedding light on “non-trivial” links in the causal chain that policymakers must heed when shaping a legal intervention. Just as IDEAL was originally applied to six types of laws regulating abortion access and provision, so should it be applicable to different types of laws designed to combat the spread of disinformation—laws whose construction would undeniably benefit from causal modeling and empirical evaluations, which have thus far been limited.