With the midterms this week, all eyes are on the threat of election hacking and interference. Electoral integrity is important, but as you’ll hear in this week’s episode, the threats to American democracy go much deeper than that to the very basis of information and conversation. Laura Rosenberger has been one of the most important voices in the efforts to combat this interference and ensure that democracy becomes even stronger and more resilient.
Laura is the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Before she joined GMF, she was foreign policy advisor for Hillary for America, where she coordinated development of the campaign’s national security policies, messaging, and strategy. Prior to that, she served in a range of positions at the State Department and the White House’s National Security Council (NSC).
She describes the lack of response to foreign interference prior to 2016 as a “failure of imagination” and, through her work at the German Marshal Fund, is determined to ensure that imagination does not fail again. Laura is a Penn State alumna and a member of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Board of Visitors.
This week’s episode was recorded live at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
[3:25] What are you hoping to accomplish with the Alliance for Securing Democracy?
Laura: It is a bipartisan effort founded a little over a year ago. Some are surprised to see a volunteer for Hillary Clinton and a volunteer for Marco Rubio work together in an organization like this. My response to that is that if we can’t work together to defend democracy, then we’ve really lost a lot. We disagree on many issues, but it takes a health and safe democracy in order to be able to have a place to have those debates. Jamie and I realized that we some times have to tend our own garden so to speak. This is the idea that our own democracy needed some work. We have to actually defend it because it can be undermined by those who want to weaken us. From a national security perspective, we think it is incredibly important that we understand how foreign powers are trying to undermine our institutions. We also must build resilience into our democracy. Entities such as Russia are exploiting our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
[5:37] What is Hamilton 68?
Laura: The names comes from the Federalist papers. Specifically, number 68 where Hamilton warns about the threat to our democracy from foreign powers. Today, this situation with Russia seems to have jumped out of a spy novel. Many people still ask if this is something that is really an issue. The idea of foreign threats to our democracy, and the importance of guarding against them, is a core aspect of the birth of the nation. The founders warned about this very threat. What the dash board does is track Russian backed social media accounts and the messages they are pushing out into the public. These accounts have taken a position on a wide range of issues. Also, they will often take both sides of an issue so as to creat as much division as possible. With the use of bots, which are automated social media messages, these foreign entities can manipulate the online information ecosystem and make certain issues appear more prevalent and important than they really are. We have used this tool to educate policy makers and journalists about the actions of these foreign entities.
8:35: What is the intended use of this tool?
Laura: It was designed to be a very publicly accessible tool. When we launched this program, many of the media companies were still refusing to acknowledge that there was this foreign misinformation effort on their platforms. So the intent early on was to bring attention to the fact that this issue was still a problem. While we’ve usually talked about this misinformation campaign effort in terms of the elections, many of the issues we see these accounts engage in are not election issues. We really just wanted to expose these actors and bring attention to them. If we can educate people as to the tactics used by these foreign entities, maybe we can get people to be more cautious when seeing certain information online.
[11:04] Looking to the upcoming midterms, how likely do you think it is that we wake up on the day after the election and realize that something is not right?
Laura: It is important to remember that many of these efforts by foreign actors are not about elections. While there is electoral interference efforts here, there are also broader long term democracy interference efforts going on. I see the election interference efforts as one part of this larger effort to attack democracy. Given how important elections are for a democratic system, they are ripe targets for those trying to negatively impact democratic nations. There were also several attempts to probe state election infrastructures. The efforts here aren’t so much about actually changing specific votes, but to attack things like voter roles to get people off of them to prevent them from being able to vote. These efforts can also do something very damaging, which is cause people to doubt the legitimacy of elections. This distrust can spawn conspiracy theories. Such developments are dangerous for a democracy.
One possible scenario on the day after the election is even just a story that a states infrastructure was hacked. The validity of this claim is irrelevant in terms of the damage such a story could do. It could take months to investigate such a claim. We also could see fake protests where these Russian accounts essentially goat people on both sides to participating in a fake protest. If you push fake stories about a hack and create fake protests pushing for violence, you’ve then create complete and total madness into the system.
[16:30] How has you imagination about what is possible in terms of threats to our democracy changed?
Laura: The report on the 9/11 attacks spoke about the failures which enabled the attack as failures of imagination to potentially see such an attack be launched. For me, what we saw around the efforts in 2016 was also a result of a failure of imagination. When we saw these actions being taken in Ukraine, we thought it was a regional effort and not a test run for similar attacks on us here at home. Social media companies didn’t realize that the platforms they used to connect us could be used by foreign entities as weapons to turn ourselves against each other. It is important for us to both understand what happened as well as to understand what is still possible in the future.
Another concern I have in terms of potential future threats involves artificial intelligence and machine learning. A specific concern amongst tech companies is something called “deep fakes”. Essentially, this is manipulated and augmented video and audio content using artificial intelligence tools. With these tools, seeing may no longer be believing.
[19:36] Should we be worried about China?
Laura: Yes, China in engaging in political interference in places around the world, such as in Australia. However, it is important to know that China is a very different actor from Russia. In part, due to the different strategies they utilize. There are still many unknowns as to Chinese interest in interfering with us. In terms of China, I’m more concerned about the long term political covert efforts they tend to engage in.
I have one last point I want to make. The vice president recently stated that China in interfering with our election because they don’t like the president, and I think that is very dangerous. We can’t politicizes this idea of democracy interference. When we start to think this is about one party, we lose our ability to mount a united fight against these efforts to undermine our institutions. They care about attacking us as a nation, not any particular political party.
[25:10] How have the Russians changed their approach given that we’ve started to catch on to what they’re doing?
Laura: One change we’ve seen is that these Russian actors are putting much more effort into making their outreach on social media appear real. Rather than putting out rather basic recruitment posts for protest or counter protests, they are now actually contacting certain activists and trying to get them to buy into their efforts. They are embedding themselves more into real communities in America. This does two things. First, it makes it harder for companies to detect these fake Russian accounts. Second, this makes it more difficult for companies to choose to remove the content because they’re also removing content from real users who the Russians have attached themselves to. This also has the effect of casting doubt on democratic efforts such as protests. People don’t’ know if you’re there to honestly advocate on behalf of something or if you’re simply some fake Russian effort to undermine the country.
[28:30] What are some things that we should be doing to combat these attacks?
Laura: One thing is that we have to come together as a nation on this. We’ve got to get out of the partisan trap on this issue. I think we are capable of doing this. We could also benefit greatly from a bipartisan commission similar to the one we had after the 9/11 attacks. Government and the private sector needs to take action. Also, citizens themselves need to take action to fight back.