The International Law of Rabble-Rousing

Yale Journal of International Law Online, Vol. 45, No. 1, Forthcoming

22 Pages Posted: 21 Aug 2019 Last revised: 4 Sep 2019

See all articles by Hendrick Townley

Hendrick Townley

Yale University

Asaf Lubin

Yale University; Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; Yale University - Information Society Project

Date Written: August 14, 2019


Within the theater of modern information warfare there exists a particularly devious, and previously unnamed practice, which existing legal literature has so far mostly ignored. This practice we coin "rabble-rousing": the simultaneous, two-sided amplification of content in support of directly contradictory stances on controversies of national significance. The goal of these operations is to sow mistrust and aggravate divisions within a target populace.

The tactic has become an especially potent weapon thanks to the widely present technologies of the cyber age including social media platforms and automated “bot” capabilities. This strategy is distinct both from the injection of “fake news” into public discourse – as it need not involve false information – and from doxing and hacking – as it has no obviously illegal component under domestic law nor does it target a single individual.

This paper offers a complete account of rabble-rousing strategies and explores the extent to which international law and available technologies are well equipped in addressing the threat that these strategies pose to public world order.

The paper proceeds in the following order: Part I provides a definition of rabble-rousing strategies, highlighting the ways by which they are uniquely defined from other forms of information warfare. The section then proceeds to highlight the dangers associated with the practice. Part II moves to examine whether rabble-rousing can be recognized as an internationally wrongful act under the traditional paradigms of public international law. The section looks at the prohibitions on coercive intervention and transboundary harm, the principle of sovereignty, and the human rights to self-determination and freedom of expression to determine the legality of rabble-rousing operations under international law. This Section highlights the limits of traditional interpretations of the above legal regimes and proposes how certain adaptations to the law could potentially better capture the examined phenomenon. Part III assesses current technological capabilities and proposes policy solutions, which will be necessary for states to practically defend against this activity regardless of whether or not wrongfulness can be established.

Keywords: International Law, Human Rights Law, Cyberwarfare, Information Warfare, Sovereignty, Self-Determination, Freedom of Expression

Suggested Citation

Townley, Hendrick and Lubin, Asaf, The International Law of Rabble-Rousing (August 14, 2019). Yale Journal of International Law Online, Vol. 45, No. 1, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Hendrick Townley (Contact Author)

Yale University ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States

Asaf Lubin

Yale University ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States

Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Yale University - Information Society Project ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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