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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. How do we secure American Democracy from the threat of Russian disinformation, and moreover, how do we ensure that our norms and values as a people are not eroded? Those are the central questions we’ll explore today with two leading experts, Laura Rosenberger is director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She’s a former national Security Council and State Department official. A former Senate aide to Marco Rubio, Jamie Fly is senior fellow and director of the Future of Geopolitics and Asia Programs also housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The Alliance is working to document and expose Vladimir Putin’s ongoing efforts to subvert Democracy in the US and Europe and is developing a playbook with recommendations for Democratic leaders about how democracy can be better safeguarded for tomorrow. Welcome to you both.
FLY: Thank you.
ROSENBERGER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: We hosted Amy Knight, a KGB expert, not so long ago. And the question and unknown answer we arrived at was what does Putin fear? How can, how can we ensure that our democratic fabric is secure? And if Putin does not fear repercussions, then can we be certain that our democracy will stay intact? And I wanted you guys to reflect on that.
ROSENBERGER: Yeah I think you know the question of what Vladimir Putin wants, why he is subverting other democracies is a really important one to understand. One thing that’s important is Russia’s a declining power. If you look at Russia’s economy, if you look at sort of the state of Russia’s position in the world, it’s not going to be growing in absolute power in the future. Like, different than China, right? Which is actually growing. Russia is declining. But Putin wants to restore Russia’s greatness, as he sees it and keep Russia as a global player. The only way for him to really be able to do that is by weakening others. And Putin has really identified going at the core of our foundations, our democratic institutions, norms, principles, values, as one of our greatest strengths and therefore one of the best ways to weaken us. So I think that that’s one of the key things to understand here, is Putin’s acting actually out of weakness.
HEFFNER: And why have we, Jamie, not come to understand or at least the consciousness in this country does not necessarily view Putin aligned with other strongmen figures.
FLY: This has been a long-running problem in American [LAUGHS] foreign policy. This is not just a problem that started with President Donald Trump. I served in the Bush Administration, President George W. Bush tried to form a relationship with Vladimir Putin to get certain things to advance US national security. President Obama tried the same thing with his reset of Russian, US-Russian relations. So it’s not unusual that you have an administration that maybe doesn’t necessarily view Russia as the threat that it is. I think the politics of this, the public opinion right now, it’s very interesting because you’ve actually seen a shift over the last several years. More Democrats now actually think actually view Russia and Putin as a threat compared to where they were several years ago, whereas Republicans have shifted in the opposite direction. A lot of that I don’t think is because of any deep-seated impact that Russia’s activities have had on those publics. I think a lot of it is just people kind of following the politics of this, people who respect Donald Trump kind of adopt his view of Russia and Putin. I think what we’re trying to highlight is just the fact that this is an ongoing problem, the Russians continue to do this even after the election, they’re doing it as well in Europe, and we want to make sure that more Americans are aware that this is a major challenge to our Democracy.
HEFFNER: We also hosted within the last year the creator of The Americans. Now I would imagine you follow that to some extent. Maybe you’re not junkies like I am. But I asked Joe Weisberg who was a CIA officer if it was plausible that in the clothing of Americans there were operatives in this country. I mean this was several months before the election. And he said no. But obviously they existed online as they infected Twitter and Facebook and other, what I’ve come to call anti-social media platforms. You describe your intention to create a blueprint or a platform for thinkers to develop strategies to counter the influence of Putin. What are you working on right now?
ROSENBERGER: So one of the things that we’ve done is actually develop a tool that is tracking the messaging that’s being pushed by Russian-linked social media accounts. In particular on Twitter and we’re tracking what they are, the messages they’re pushing every single day. And by the way, that continues to this day. As Jamie said, this isn’t something that stopped with the election. It’s not just about elections actually, I mean this is really about- attacking our democracy. Elections are just one really important institution in that. We believe it’s really important to be exposing the messages that these networks are trying to push. Really kind of get a sense of frankly what is what does Putin want Americans to be thinking about and talking about in a way. You know there’s a lot of conversations right now about how do we deal with the free speech aspects of these issues? I think for us you know we’re very much oriented around the fact that we’re trying to secure our democracy and so none of the steps that we can be taking or should be taking, in order to do that should in any way contribute to eroding our democratic principles. And that includes in the free speech arena. That’s why we think actually providing transparency, exposing the messages, allowing Americans and others to be better-informed, what is the Kremlin trying to get Americans to think about, talk about. That’s the kind of approach we’re taking and what we’ve seen is that they’re pushing extremely divisive messages. Trying to push on every seam in American society whether that’s political, religious, racial, gender trying to push Americans to extremes. So taking people who may already have one view and trying to push them in a more extreme direction, and really trying to turn us against one another.
HEFFNER: It was documented during the Senate testimony that the Russian troll farms were pushing out content to sow division, whether that was racial discord, or ethnic attacks on minority groups. That is, in effect, Putin’s attempt to hijack the social media to create harm. What is the ultimate goal of that, of that harm in terms of handicapping our way of life?
FLY: Well I think it, the danger is that it completely corrupts our political debate, has the potential to. And going back to your comment about The Americans, I mean if you look at- at that example of those sorts of Cold War spy tactics, there have been cases shown now that there were Russian agents who did these sorts of things. They were set up front organizations that pushed a certain propaganda message. That was very time consuming for them, it was often expensive. And it had very limited impact, it was hard to actually influence a large, a segment of society that way. They had to aim at small segments of the elite population. The reality now with social media use and the decline of traditional media in the US is not even having to invest in someone who has to physically be in the US. They can sit externally in Russia or elsewhere, and actually push these messages to a much broader population, essentially to any American who has a cell phone and connects to social media networks through that cell phone. You can also micro-target messages as we saw from the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings to very direct segments of the population. An important aspect of that which I think the hearings also exposed is there’s a perception that somehow this is a partisan issue. As a Republican, I hear this all the time. Republicans are dismissive of this, well, the Russians, they’re just hurting the Democrats, they’re just attacking Democrats, or Secretary Clinton. The reality is if you look at our dashboard “Hamilton 68” you’ve seen that – even just over the last several months they’re targeting everyone. This is equal opportunity, they will push both sides of an issue, post-Charlottesville, they were supporting White Nationalists. They were also supporting Black Lives Matter. So they try to support opposing groups to actually pit people against each other, they target Republican leaders, like Speaker Ryan, Mitch McConnell, people in the administration, General McMaster, that they don’t necessarily like. So this is an equal opportunity problem and I think they’ve discovered that it actually works which the danger is now if we don’t actually do anything in response, they will continue to refine these methods and come back again and again every time we have a national election.
HEFFNER: It works, Jamie, in furtherance of what ultimate objective, just to toy with us?
FLY: I think a lot of it is just to put us off-balance, to distract us.
HEFFNER: But, and what are they getting out of this?
FLY: Well I think if you look at where Russia is now just in term, geopolitical terms, compared to where it was five years ago, Vladimir Putin has reinserted Russia into the Middle East in a way that many of us would have never expected. He is…
HEFFNER: Is it a PR job? In part? Raise his profile.
FLY: In part, and I think his own personal involvement, that’s another piece that I think we miss, the comments that he makes, that his foreign minister makes. They often play into this quite a bit as well and they then needle us and our political debates and almost kind of mock what’s going on here in response to the very tactics that they initiated in the first place.
ROSENBERGER: It’s also about power at home, I mean this is something Jamie and I have talked a lot about and that Jamie’s been very focused on. Is that- this allows Vladimir Putin basically to discredit democracy, to say look what a mess Democracy is why Russian people, would you be, you know pressing for democratic reforms. You know if you look back, Vladimir Putin initially kind of made this compact with his people that if they allowed him to really push the economy to flourish, really give greater prosperity to the Russian people, then they could look the other way a little bit on things like corruption and on things like the, you know the restricting of you know the political space in Russia. He hasn’t been able to deliver on that economic front, and sanctions have made that even more difficult for him. So he’s gotta find another way,
HEFFNER: You mentioned sanctions.
HEFFNER: Bob Corker, a Senator from Tennessee, and others skeptical of this administration are unconvinced that we are actually practicing what we preached or what the President signed into law, how can your project help account for those sanctions? Because sanctions as an abstract concept is not effective but we need to know what- is really happening, right?
ROSENBERGER: Yeah so, I mean, we’re sort of looking broadly at the various levers that we may have in order to affect Vladimir Putin’s calculus and other actors who may be seeking to adopt these tools. One of them is in the sanctions space. There are certainly [you know if we think about what Putin cares about, he cares about power and he cares about his money. And that’s why sanctions are a really important tool. I think we can help through our research provide information for those who are trying to implement the sanctions, those in Congress and others, about where the various points of leverage are to really go after in terms of additional designations, in terms of additional measures. Certainly there is a lot of concern about whether the sanctions are being implemented to the fullest extent, and I think that that’s really important in terms of showing Putin that there’s, you know accountability for his actions.
HEFFNER: Is there enough transparency so that we could see in the case of Donald Trump that his businesses for instance are complying with what are supposed to be the sanctions. I use him as an example because he’s had some affection, he’s expressed affection for Putin. So I mean I think that’s a study, I mean we need to know that American businesses and of course our government are in fact complying with the sanctions that were newly signed into law against Iran as well.
FLY: There’s a process between, there’s, as with any administration between the legislative branch and the executive branch. For the Congress to provide oversight, especially on a bill like this, which was initiated by members of Congress of both parties who were concerned about the fact that there had not been enough response from the US government to what everyone agreed had been Russian interference last year. And there’s that back and forth that’s happening right now, where the administration is being asked to explain exactly how they’re interpreting the sanctions, and there will be that continuous oversight. Sanctions I think are an important part of the response because we need to show other foreign actors too, such as China, that there will be punishment if they try to do these sorts of things, in terms of interfering in our democracy or the democracies of our allies. That’s only one piece of it, I think we also need to build up our own defenses here at home, and that’s also what our alliance is looking at, what in US law is currently not sufficient to prevent tens of millions of dollars from being provided to high-profile, political actors [LAUGHS] in our system, our own campaigns, clearly to influence US policy in a certain direction. What are we doing to actually secure the elections infrastructure to make sure that hackers could not actually change vote tallies. There’s no evidence that it actually happened last time, but there is evidence that the Russians were probing those election systems, kind of testing them out and seeing how far they could get with the assumption that next time they might actually come back and try to do something differently. So there are all these sorts of defensive measures as well, but nothing really has happened more than a year after the election, which I think all of us find quite concerning.
HEFFNER: If we reflect on 2017, there were gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia, there were delegate races across the country, some mayoral races. Of course you had the special elections as well: Montana, South Carolina, and most recently Alabama. At least insofar as we can tell, the cyber security apparatus was sufficient so that no one has questioned the integrity of those results. Is that accurate?
ROSENBERGER: I certainly haven’t seen anybody questioning that, I mean but there’s,
HEFFNER: Which is a positive sign?
ROSENBERGER: Well, let me kind of disaggregate that just a little bit because there’s the question of the integrity of the results, and then there’s the question of other measures or other tactics used to try to influence, interfere with, undermine the process. With 2016, I don’t think we’ve seen any convincing evidence at all that there was actually any challenge to the integrity of the election itself. As Jamie said, we’ve seen no evidence that any votes were changed, you know there’s questions about the voter roles that were probed as well, but we’ve also seen no evidence of manipulation of data there. What we have seen is an enormous amount of evidence about the information operations trying to influence people’s views one way or another, really push them in different directions, obviously the use of hacking combined with that in terms of the theft of the materials from the DNC and John Podesta. And so I think it’s important to understand that we’re not just talking about the integrity of the actual election, which is a really important piece and as Jamie said, something that we think does require defensive action to make sure that that’s not under threat. But there are other steps as well, other measures that we’ve seen. And in Alabama and Virginia both and I have seen less details on the other races, but we did see information operations from these Russia-linked networks playing in Alabama actually quite heavily.
HEFFNER: So that’s the integrity of the process, which may be more critical at this juncture and in the future so- what would you like to see, either the FEC, FCC, these social media companies, or United States Congress doing about this problem?
FLY: I think on that piece fundamentally we need to move towards a system of political advertising where anyone who is engaging in political ad-buying on social media needs to declare who they are. And as with other types of political communication during an election, the foreign actors should not be allowed [LAUGHS] to purchase such advertising, as we saw happened in 2016. So I think we’re still looking at this, but I think our general recommendation is that some of the initiatives that you’ve started to see in Congress need to move- forward, the FCC can do some of that I believe already on its own, under existing authorities. So that’s one major piece. The bigger challenge though is at the end of the day, you’re never going to completely deal with this threat to the process by throwing up restrictions because the reality is we live in an open society, as Laura talked about earlier. We don’t actually want to adopt elements of Putin’s regime and the way that he governs and cut off debate. So I think the only long-term solution to all this is more education, and raising awareness amongst the American public. Voters need to be more educated, intelligent consumers of information and ask questions about why they’re hearing certain messages. And especially as more and more young people rely primarily on social media for news and less on traditional media, they need to adopt a different approach to how they actually interpret what they see on social media and that is a probably a generational challenge which is going to involve all segments of society, certainly well beyond just the national security community.
ROSENBERGER: Yeah and some of these cases as well, you know with what we’ve now seen in terms of the fake personas, fake accounts, automated accounts, sock puppets, trolls, et cetera, [LAUGHS] whatever kind of different name we want to give to these different tactics that are used on social media. In some of these instances, these accounts very clearly violated the terms of service of the platform. So Facebook, for instance, says you know as part of its policy it doesn’t allow inauthentic users. Well we’ve now seen there were a whole host of them on there. So some of this is just about better enforcing those terms of service and actually ensuring that the accounts that are there, the pages that are there are authentic as well.
HEFFNER: I think one of the most effectives lines of questioning from that hearing was Senator Richard Burr, establishing that these companies had violated the FEC rules and regulations. They broke the law in selling ads to companies whether they were in American, US dollars or non-US currency, that in effect was a violation of law. As soon as they sold those ads to the troll farms and, we’ve been talking about this a lot here on the show, but the companies have not yet accounted for how many ads were sold to bots, trolls, political action committees, campaigns. That’s a problem.
ROSENBERGER: Yeah I think it goes back to the transparency point here. We really need to have much greater transparency about political advertising, totally agree that this is an area where, you know as Jamie said earlier, I think it is an area where the FEC is actually currently going through a process to try to tighten up the rules for advertising on social media, political advertising on social media. We’ve weighed in, in favor of applying the same rules to political advertising on social media that are applied to political advertising on any other platform, but part of the challenge here is that political ads are actually just one part and really one small part of the tactics that we have seen the Russians using.
HEFFNER: So, interference beyond the digital realm. Is this purely a Putin problem in terms of our capacity to negotiate and have a diplomatic détente with the Russians? Is there potential now that we see Putin will be seeking a third term. At the end of the day, I use the word is he just toying with us? Because ever since the wall came crumbling down, the idea from the beautiful PBS, Frontline documentary two-part series that I’d urge our viewers to watch is that this is Putin’s vendetta, a vendetta against Secretary Clinton, but more broadly a vendetta against the US. Where do we go diplomatically from here big picture, Jamie?
FLY: I think the challenge is that Putin’s now running for re-election as you mentioned. He faces a public that’s increasingly skeptical of the system as Laura spoke about earlier. And so, there’s a very real chance that he’s going to be looking for more things to distract and turn attention elsewhere. So these sorts of tactics that have now been successful I think, from a Russian perspective, can easily be turned up and increased over time.
HEFFNER: Is this a Putin problem or a Russian problem?
FLY: I mean these, these are old tactics. They’ve…
HEFFNER: In terms of that vendetta.
FLY: Yeah I mean I think the reality that he was willing to go this far in such an assertive, aggressive way is a personal [LAUGHS] issue with Vladimir Putin. But again, the Soviet Union used similar tactics against America during the Cold War, they’ve done this in Europe for decades. But the brazenness I think was related to his own personal view of you know especially his view of Secretary Clinton, I believe that, that drove a lot of that. – I’m not that concerned honestly about the future of US-Russian relations. I think eventually we’ll move beyond Putin. I think there’s broader geopolitical trends that will eventually draw the Russian people closer to America if you look at some of the challenges we’re gonna be dealing with in the next twenty or thirty years, especially China, and- I’m actually very concerned though that now other countries like China will look at this playbook, realize it works, both the manipulation of the electoral process, of our democratic debates, but also use the other too, aspects of the tool book. Overt propaganda through state-sponsored media outlets, the financial influence which the Russians have dabbled in as well, but others like China may even be more able to exercise effectively, and then the- the so-called- now people referring to as the sharp power because of the importance of the economic relationship, box out certain debate about our views about that particular country through the grants they give to academic institutions, and really kind of squelch that conversation about the internal policies in their country and any kind of disparate views about the merits of the current trajectory of our relationship with a country like China. So we’re seeing others start to play with these tools as well, and I actually think in the long run that’s that’s the real danger that- that we’re going to see in the coming decades.
ROSENBERGER: I completely agree with what Jamie just said. I think there is a Putin element to this problem, but it’s really important to understand that this is about a toolkit that can be used by a range of actors to really try and harm us. And Putin has just demonstrated how potent it is, but, we really need to be understanding how those tools operate and the best ways to counter them in addition to how to counter the actors using them, just as you do in any other kind of geopolitical question. You’ve got to understand the tools that are being used, and the actors that are using them.
HEFFNER: And finally what can the folks watching this do to counteract? They want to build their own toolkit.
ROSENBERGER: I think people, as Jamie said, number one, media literacy, critical thinking, really making sure that people understand where information’s coming from, what the motivations are behind that information. I think that’s really, really important. I think understanding the importance of our democracy, to our daily lives. Democracy’s kind of an invisible good sometimes. We sometimes forget how essential it is to our entire way of life. But what we’re seeing now is a real challenge to that and it’s really time for people to stand up and say this is worth defending and frankly to push their members of Congress and other elected leaders to really be doing something about this because it is absolutely essential to who we are as Americans.
FLY: I think that last point is key. I think people need to urge their elected representatives to not let another year pass without doing anything in response to what our intelligence community agrees was this Russian interference. And then the other piece, going back to social media, is I think people just need to ask more of the social media companies. This is not just a one-company-problem. It relates quite frankly, to a lot of the use of algorithms, which are across platforms. And I think if people are concerned about that, and it’s not just a foreign interference challenge, it can be exploited by corporations, other individuals, wealthy individuals who have an agenda. They should start to speak out, and they should actually ask for more information about why something appears in their newsfeed, or how things are prioritized or ranked in a particular, on a particular platform. And I think if unless people start to ask for that, certainly the companies are not going to start providing more information on their own.
HEFFNER: Thank you, both. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.