Category Archives: Laura Rosenberger

What does the Mueller report mean for democracy?



Laura Rosenberger
Laura Rosenberger

By now, you’ve no doubt head all about the report issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the drama in Washington that’s ensued in the time since its release. But, if you only focus on the information about collusion and obstruction in the Trump administration, you are missing a whole other part of the story about Russian interference in democracy leading up to the 2016 election. Laura Rosenberger and her colleagues at the bipartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy have been working to raise awareness about this threat since the 2016 election.

Laura joins us this week to discuss what she learned from the report, and where the efforts to combat Russian interference stand. She is our first repeat guest on the podcast. We last spoke with her in the fall of 2018, just before the midterm elections, during a live event at the National Press Club.

Additional Information

Alliance for Securing Democracy

Our conversation with Laura in fall 2018

A note to our listeners in the New York City area: Jenna Spinelle will be participating in a panel called “Podcasts to the Rescue! An Emerging Medium for Learning About Civics, Government, and the Social Contract” on Thursday, May 30 at the Metropolitan New York Library Council. The event is free and open to the public. We would love to meet you!

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Whose should be taking the lead on combating Russian interference in our democracy?
  • What role does the government have to play? Social media platforms? Everyday citizens?
  • Do you think that Russian interference will influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election?

Interview Highlights

[5:15] What did you learn from the Mueller report?

I think it is one of the most important things to remember is that Special Counsel Mueller was appointed to investigate a number of different things. One of them was Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. We learned through the course of his investigation, including through some indictments that he brought against Russian officials and entities, some of what he was finding, but the report definitely added to that. In many ways, I would say his report and the investigation that he led really built on what we found and saw from the findings of the intelligence community and its own assessment of the Russian interference operations, as well as investigations by a number of bipartisan committees in Congress.

[9:58] Are you seeing any evidence that calls to respond to Russian interference are being heeded?

I think we have seen some incremental steps. I think that maybe we are in a slightly better position than we were in 2016, but I think that we have a whole lot of progress that we still need to make if we’re actually going to better protect our democracy against the threats that we face. I think the social media companies need to do a whole lot more to take this issue on in a very systemic way, really going after the root of the problem. I worry right now that some of the approach is too focused on eliminating what they’ve dubbed harmful content.

[11:35] Who do you see as your allies in these efforts?

I think there’s a lot of really great folks out there trying to work on different components of this problem. One of them, there’s a really robust community of researchers that have been taking on this problem and trying to better understand it and provide information. I think transparency and exposing these kinds of operations is one of the really important things that we can do to help combat them.

[14:20] Did we see any changes in election security between 2016 and the 2018 midterms?

We definitely have seen some steps being taken around the midterm elections, including better information sharing between the federal government and state and local officials, getting more information to those officials to be able to ensure that they understand the threat picture, getting a little bit more funding to them, although the funding that was given to them was really for addressing existing vulnerabilities even before the Russian attempts were made.

One of the things, though, that’s really concerning to me is in the wake of the Mueller Report, one of the things that he had in there that was new was talking about a county in Florida that had it’s networks penetrated by Russian cyber hackers. In the wake of that, there’s been a big dispute between the federal government and the state of Florida about whether that was true, whether there was evidence of that, claims that the FBI hadn’t shared what they needed.

[19:29] What changes do you think we’re most likely to see between now and the 2020 election?

Since 2014 we’ve basically seen an ongoing effort by the Russians that has had different chapters at different times. Sometimes targeting different elections and different election cycles, sometimes targeting different issues that are highly divisive in the media. It’s important to understand that these operations are ongoing and they evolve at different points in time. Some of the things that I’m worried about that we might see in terms of evolution targeting the 2020 elections, first is we’ve seen the Internet Research Agency getting even better at insinuating itself to different activist groups. We are a very fertile target surface for our adversaries to take aim at. I think that we’ve got to really turn that table around to ensure that we’re better protected.

[24:01] What would you recommend our listeners do if they are concerned about Russian interference in our democracy?

Voting is something everything can do and it’s also really important for people, as on any other issue, for peoples elected officials to hear from them if this is an issue that they’re concerned about. Dozens of bipartisan pieces of legislation were introduced in the last Congress to address these tactics by the Russians, and we have seen none of them become law. It’s also really important for people to engage in critical thinking on any piece of information. That includes online, and that includes elsewhere. It’s really easy in the political campaign context, when people are very emotional and you’re really trying to make a point, it’s very easy to hook onto something that we agree with, that we think is a really solid thing, even if we don’t know who’s saying it or what their interest or motivations may be, or where the information came from.


Protecting democracy from foreign interference — recorded live at the National Press Club



Laura Rosenberger
Laura Rosenberger

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.

Additional Information

Hamilton 68: Tracking Russian Influence Operations on Twitter

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you believe that Russia and other foreign entities are trying to interfere with our democratic norms and institutions? Why or why not?
  • How much damage do you think these attacks can have on our country?
  • Do you think you’ve come across any Russian “bots” on social media?
  • During the interview, Laura stated that she wants social media companies to take more action to prevent these attacks. Do you think they have a responsibility to take action? If so, what should they be doing?
  • Are you concerned that in an effort to limit the effectiveness of these attacks we might infringe upon our own rights such as freedom of speech?
  • Do you think our institutions will survive these attacks going forward?

Interview Highlights

[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.