Digital Disruption and Revisionist Statecraft:
How Revisionist Powers Shape their Adversaries’ Politics

How do revisionist states influence domestic preferences in adversary states to shape their foreign policy? My dissertation applies a conceptual framework of revisionist statecraft and digital disruption: the “hybrid” use of the non-military domains of information, influence, and cyber operations to shape domestic preferences in the target state, and from that their foreign policy.

At the level of the international system, I posit that certain authoritarian states oppose the prevailing norms and the perceived imbalance of power in the current international order and seek to redress it in their favor. They seek not only to defend their interests but to change an international order they deem structurally disadvantages them. These revisionist states, lacking superiority in the determinants of superiority in great power competition, seek relative rather than absolute power gains by undermining their rivals. Unable to influence elites, revisionist states circumvent them using new technologies to shape foreign political preferences directly, with the goal of polarization to block winning coalitions. At the operational level, the overarching mechanism is attribution manipulation, whereby the sender manipulates attribution to maximize disruption and minimize the probability of retribution. At the tactical level, the goal is polarization, not persuasion.

To address the empirical challenge of revisionist states’ furtive influence and information operations, I employ a layered multi-method research design to collect data and to develop and test my theories. Through ethnographic research in Estonia and Latvia, combined with nearly 100 elite interviews, I developed a theory of how info ops manipulate societal cleavages and marginal political actors. In parallel, I present counterintuitive findings on revisionist states’ influence operations that indicate that these principals prefer more marginal agents of influence to more established ones, as well as the paradoxical influence of such marginal actors.

I then used large-N proprietary social media datasets to test my theory of polarizing strategic narratives and found that revisionist state-sponsored outlets systematically over-reported topics from these strategic narratives. Using some of this content in an experimental setting, my survey experiments found that these strategic narratives polarized audiences along ethnolinguistic and ideological cleavages. These results support my theory that revisionist states use strategic narratives to polarize target audiences—not to persuade them. With these findings, I offer policy-relevant conclusions on how to counter revisionist info ops by identifying hidden online “relay stations” and by attributing the original source of such content.