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Ilves: Break-up of Western states dangerous and in Russia's interest

Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Source: (Postimees/Scanpix)

In an interview with Spanish daily El País, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves talked about how Russia's continued attempts to disrupt democratic processes fit in with the current situation in Catalonia.

According to El País, the regional government in Catalonia has been preparing systems for a parallel digital government leading up to the regional parliament’s declaration of independence from Spain, similar to the systems Estonia uses. Asked if something like this was feasible, Ilves specified that he sees what Estonia used as digital administration rather than ruling a country digitally, as the Estonian e-state follows the principle that any service related to the state that is available online also needs to be available on paper.

Though digital technology certainly makes it easier to separate governance from physical territory, Ilves said, also pointing out that he has voted from California, and signed documents digitally from Paraguay.

Though he said he doesn’t consider Russia a threat in the sense of a Cold-War scenario and an actual invasion, it has been trying to weaken the Western democracies by promoting discord, and in some cases also separatism, Ilves said. Europe indeed has a reason to be concerned, as the same approaches it used to influence the U.S. presidential election in 2016 have all been identified in France in the elections earlier this year. The same hacker groups are involved, and they have managed to break into the systems of the German Bundestag, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and even the World Anti-Doping Agency, Ilves said.

Leading up to the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, 13,000 Twitter bots were used to push the vote towards leave. Such attacks are one-sided and asymmetrical, Ilves pointed out—an authoritarian regime can undermine a democracy, but the same disinformation campaigns cannot be used the same way against an authoritarian regime, as undermining fake elections doesn’t make much sense.

Bots (automated social media accounts) are a threat, as they repeat fake news thousands of times and help spread false narratives and manipulated messages. Other than for business reasons, he doesn’t understand why the networks don’t shut them down, Ilves said.

Asked about the upcoming Congressional hearings in the U.S. of Facebook, Google, and Twitter executives, Ilves said he expects to hear more about what actually happened in last year’s presidential campaign, and pointed out that Twitter has announced it will label political advertising in the future. He expects pressure on the Internet giants to increase to make the way social media are run more transparent, and hopes that Congress will insist they make public what user data they sell to businesses, Ilves said.

Russia’s current interest in Spain, according to Ilves, fits their general approach: since there is no way of knowing how the EU would respond to an independent Scotland or Catalonia, the present situation offers the opportunity to exacerbate tensions and further weaken democracies.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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