Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Digital War, Espionage, and Dirty Tricks

Air Date: February 8, 2019

Annenberg Public Policy Center director Kathleen Hall Jamieson discusses political hacking, trolls, and electronic communication.


I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. We’re delighted to welcome back the foremost expert on American political communication. Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Oxford University Press has published her newest work, “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President – What We Don’t, Can’t and Do Know.” The author of 16 books, including this latest forensic examination of Russian digital dirty tricks. Jamison is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Packard Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Kathleen, it’s a pleasure to finally have you here.

JAMIESON: It’s a pleasure to be here.

HEFFNER: You’ve been here with Bill Moyers. You’ve been here with my grandfather. Now I’m delighted to host you.

JAMIESON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: You say unequivocally, this is war. What’s the line between dirty tricks and war and how was that surfacing on the Internet during the 2016 campaign?

JAMIESON: Begin by asking what would constitute an attack because the notion that this is a cyber attack leads to the question, can you call it cyberwar, and there are people in the intelligence community who were very nervous about using that label because they want to say it means you’re trying to take down the infrastructure so they literally where you attack the grid for example, and as a result you don’t have electricity or you attack the financial structures and as a result, Wall Street collapses. But what I want to suggest with the idea that this is a cyber attack and it’s cyberwar, is that a foreign power managed to enter the territorial United States pretending to be us. That’s the case of the Russian trolls in cyberspace. Now does that sound a little like soldiers have invaded us. Although they disguise themselves so they didn’t know that they were soldiers and they marauded around inside our Internet trying to manipulate the citizenry. Now they didn’t kill anybody, but what they did was created an information climate that produced an effect. This is information warfare. It isn’t the kind of warfare with guns. It’s a kind of warfare in which if you create a message imbalance, so there’s more attack against one candidate or extreme discourse against one candidate on the margins, you’re able to shift votes. They also then again attacked. They invaded, and this is illegal. They stole material from the Democrats and they leaked it back through WikiLeaks into our press system, so they altered the dialogue. Now that means they entered our country literally in cyberspace. Don’t think of it in physical space, extracted something and turned it as a weapon against one of our own political candidates. In that sense, I think what you can call this is a cyber attack, and I’d like to use the analogy to war to say it’s not meddling. When the press says meddling. If I say somebody meddled, I think your response is, well, tell him to go mind their own business, but if somebody attacked in a forum in which imposters pretended to be us and manipulate us, stole things, and changed our message environment, I want people to use a stronger word. I want attack, I want intervention and I’d like people to think it’s a form of cyberwar. It’s informational warfare.

HEFFNER: Criminality. Ultimately those who conspired to circulate, disseminate messages that were manipulating the public, but that were using criminal means to infect us with the carcinogens of misinformation. That is really disinformation.


HEFFNER: What was the methodology in this study that you relied on to demonstrate this imbalance in the way that the trolls were targeting Clinton.

JAMIESON: Let me distinguish the trolls from the hackers.


JAMIESON: So the trolls are in cyberspace pretending to be US nationals and manipulating the information environment, trying to aggregate likeminded communities and influence them, increase the likelihood that circulating in those communities is material that would benefit Donald Trump and disadvantage Hilary Clinton and sow discord within the body politics.

The hackers are stealing content, passing it through front groups to try to disguise the Russian origins and trying to create a message imbalance. Now what the book argues from his 40 to almost 50 years of academic research that says that we know how we’re influenced in campaigns. We know that what we think about matters in our determining how we assess a candidate, so the agenda setting, the focusing on one thing and not another, increases the likelihood that when you assess Clinton versus Trump, you’re thinking about that thing that’s now more important and what that means is that if in this information environment, the trolls in cyberspace, the hackers through our media system are able to make some things more salient or important, they’re more likely to be used as we assess Clinton’s qualifications to be president. If that happened in the past reliably, our experiments show and our surveys show it and we see the same pattern happening it’s reasonable to think it happened this time too, and we also know in the past when one side gains the message advantage, they create more total communication, usually communication against the other side. That’s when you shift votes, when you’ve got comparable balance of communication, it kind of tends to cancel itself out, but you get an imbalance. You shift votes, so again, we have historical research that says that happens. The trolls did it in cyberspace, the hackers through WikiLeaks deterred inside our new structure, so when I step in in the book and say I have survey data that suggests that during the period of major hacked content being covered in news and separately polling data from the impact of the last two debates in which it is reasonable to assume that what has happened is the media agenda has been changed against Clinton, both in what is the focus and also in the imbalance. The survey data suggests, in effect I’m not simply saying, oh look, I see an effect. I’m saying the theory suggests that there should be an effect. There has been in the past. Here I’m surmising from actual data there is as well, and that’s the basis for saying they probably did change the outcome because in the past those kinds of manipulations created enough of effect, a bigger effect than the one needed to shift 78,000 votes in three states. T

HEFFNER: Those 78,000 votes also are something we haven’t adequately scrutinized the question of whether or not that intervention in our election, not interference, intervention was also at the state level with the outcomes – the numbers of voters and do we have full enough evidence now to eliminate the possibility that there were votes that were tampered not just folks, minds and disinformation that was catapulting people to turn out a certain way.

JAMIESON: They. It’s a really important question. Our intelligence community has said there is no evidence that there were vote changes. We do know, however, is something that’s very alarming from the intelligence community and that is that in some instances the Russian hackers got enough access that they could have altered data. Now the intelligence community is saying they have no evidence that they did, but the fact that the level of penetration into the system was that extensive opens the possibility that there may have been an impact that wasn’t detected and we know that by one revelation 21 states had some form of penetration, although most of those were not the ones that actually had access, where access was actually gained to the registration data. What that suggest is that the efforts our Secretaries of State to protect our electoral infrastructure are even more important than we ever thought they were in the past, and something and we have every reason to believe the Secretaries of State are taking this very seriously, that we ought to be on guard against as we ask, how do we protect 2020?

HEFFNER: There has been some reporting that the Russians stayed quiet or we’re not as active a presence on social networks and that might in part be the implementation of new safeguards for advertising even though Amy Klobuchar’s Honest Ads Act hasn’t been implemented. We haven’t been as rigorous as we need to be, but as we prepare and recognize that we need to be more imaginative in shielding ourselves from this kind of pernicious influence, what are you proposing that the media can do which were really reckless in their framing of narratives around the WikiLeaks disclosures in the hacking, you and I were saying there needs to be an acknowledgement on the part of political reporters with respect to that kind of foreign interference and acknowledging it and maybe reporting it differently.

JAMIESON: One of the things that I’m concerned about is that we learn all the lessons we can from 2016 and the platforms, because there’s been so much scrutiny of the platforms have out are first are more highly accountable than they ever were before although there still needs to be additional accountability and put, put in place changes that are productive changes. We need to ask extent to which they’re working. I’d like to see them do more. But in the press area, if you had to say we’ve got three players that are potentially at issue in this argument for effect, the trolls, the hackers, and then those in our governmental system who might have been influenced by the climate or by the information itself. It’s the reporters I’m actually most concerned about not being self aware of the extent to which they played a role in becoming accomplices in the Russians activities. So for example, on October 7th, you’re alluding to the fact that at the beginning of that news cycle, we had the report from two of the intelligence agencies that the Russians were behind the hacking. Shortly thereafter, the “Access Hollywood” tape and “Access Hollywood” story are posted by The Washington Post.

Now at that point you’ve got two stories that are hostile to Donald Trump’s candidacy. One, the Russians are behind the hacking and two, the “Access Hollywood tape.” Moments, practically moments within an hour of the “Access Hollywood” tape, and now this is clearly a focus on Mueller investigation, the Podesta hacked content is leaked by WikiLeaks. The first trench of Russian content, Russian-gotten content is leaked. In that environment the news media have a choice. They’ve got three things on the table. The Russians were behind the hacking, one, two the “Access Hollywood” tape, explosive story, ordinarily think would end a candidacy, and three, the Podesta email hacked content is starting to be leaked. The media very briefly covered the first story: the Russians are behind, dropped it to the bottom of the fold for the next day because the “Access Hollywood” and Podesta leak began to take dominance. By that Sunday, the news media had stopped reporting the Russians had hacked and we had it confirmed.

Now if the reporters had done a good job, they would have said Russians hacked. Here’s Podesta-hacked content, and they would have an infused their reporting with the awareness that it was Russian hacked. So instead of saying WikiLeaks released, thereby obscuring the Russian origins, they would’ve said WikiLeaks released content illegally gotten by Russian hackers.

HEFFNER: Right. The thrust of the focus would have been on the criminality and the pursuit of the hackers, and ultimately indicting and prosecuting them, which only came once Robert Mueller was appointed to really view it through that lens because Comey, James Comey was quiet about this up until the point that he was fired, but I would submit to you that it’s broader than that with respect to Donald Trump, the media feed off of him. Isn’t it going to take a certain amount of talent on the part of his opponent, assuming that Trump is the nominee for the Republicans in 2020 to be able to compete even if journalists are responsible stewards of the discourse.

JAMIESON: It is, but go back to October 7th and ask the question, what is it then Hillary Clinton can do if the press frame is ignoring the Russians did the hacking and as a result it’s not part of the new structure and Hillary Clinton comes back as she did in both of the subsequent debates when hacked content was being used in the debates and said, but wait a minute. The Russians did it. There’s no public structure of awareness to say she’s telling the truth. There’s no backdrop, news understanding and so by defaulting in its obligation to keep that piece front and center the press disadvantaged Hillary Clinton a inadvertently, but even as she tried to legitimately point to the intelligence community finding that the Russians were there and in the process what we have is a situation in which the news didn’t ask the subsequent questions, and you’re pointing to this because reasonably once you say the Russians did the hacking, you’d ask, why do the Russians want to hurt Hillary Clinton? Why do they want to help Donald Trump? Do they? What is the difference between their policies on Russia? Is there some advantage to one candidate’s policies over another? Oh, Hillary Clinton said things Vladimir Putin really doesn’t like. Would that make her a better or worse? President Donald Trump seems to be more accommodating about the Russians. Is that a good or bad thing? We never had that press discussion and so the press did not set the agenda and frame the issue in a way that let the public understand the whole.

HEFFNER: As you point out in your interview with Jane Mayer, if it had been secret memos divulged from the Trump Organization or the Stormy Daniels affair or the payoff, and if that had all been revealed in that frame, we would have perhaps had a different outcome, if they had hacked into the Trump files that it would have inverted the situation or at a minimum equalized if you had two sets of hackers, not that we’re condoning any one hacking, but we’re looking at the frame. Here’s what I want to ask you. The bellicosity have a president’s political communication is not new. We’ve seen that whether it’s FDR, TR, going all the way back to Andrew Jackson, but Donald Trump’s insistence that fake news is rampant and that journalists are the enemy of the people, that is a-historical. I can’t think of a president, whoever demonized journalists in the way that Donald Trump has, as a whole cohort in that environment. Is it not important for us on television and in the media to just continue to reassert how much of an, ahistorical anomaly this is in terms of his, his rhetoric?

JAMIESON: It’s important first not to accept vocabulary, “fake news.” So one of the big successes of President Trump has been to get the mainstream media adopt a language that discredits itself. At the point at which you say “fake news” you’re assuming there is such a thing. I’m going to argue that was news as the noun. Fake news is an oxymoron. Among other things the things that are fake news and I would call impostor sites that pretend they’re news fake news, but nothing else, in that kind of an environment. When you say that everything I dislike is fake news. Everything I want to discredit is fake news we lose track of what we should worry about in the body politic. I think we want to call it viral deception as the thing that we’re concerned about and not delegitimize news by suggesting that there is such a thing as fake news. Legitimate journalism when it’s found wanting, when it makes a mistake corrects itself. That is a characteristic of journalism. Viral deception when it’s called out, you say that’s deceptive, that’s wrong, does not correct itself. The hallmarks of news, man that fake and news don’t go together as adjective a noun, so I want to call it viral deception. VD, like venereal disease. I want us to just that you don’t want to catch it, you don’t want to transmit it and you’ve got it you want to quarantine it and cure it and I want the negative effect attached to it and then I want to say our focus should be on what’s deceptive. Now let’s look back on news. If there’s a deception in news, of course we should correct it and good news does. That’s why you can’t be fake news because one characteristic of news is it’s self-correcting. And the other concern about deception is its vitality. It manages to circulate in the body politic and we can’t catch it, so viral deception is my preferred term, one big success of President Trump is he’s gotten mainstream journalists to themselves by using fake news,

HEFFNER: Sure. But in terms of being constructive and looking towards the political communication of our future, the antidote or the contrast to Trump, President Obama said in one of his first 2018 midterm campaign appearances, I disagree with some of my fellow Democrats. I don’t think we need to fight fire with fire, but he described fighting fire with fire as those tactics of viral deception, lying to the public. I don’t think that you fight fire with fire necessarily through deceptive means. It means charisma. It means gravitas. It means sometimes bravado, sometimes machismo aren’t those qualities in political communication that we are to, that we ought to see as really requisite in challenging Donald Trump?

JAMIESON: Well, see, first, I think the question is to whom are you going to speak? There are people on each side ideologically who are locked down attitudinally. They’re never going to change their beliefs no matter what you do. The question really is when you’re speaking, what about those people who are kind of leaning to one side or late into their site, or genuinely confused or undecided or not political and about to be politically motivated. Those are the people you’re talking to and the question is, are there ways to appeal to our better nature appeal to positive virtues to positive emotions, not simply appealing to fear, anger and prejudice, and a skilled communicator can create a sense of our better self, motivate us toward it rather than our are more venal self, our more partisan self, our more self interested itself. When the nation is in a mood to accept that kind of anger, hatred, prejudice, deception, fear is that in that moment that person is there because that climate has been created, not just by somebody but by a lot of some bodies. I can increase the likelihood that you or I are feeling partisan and I can increase the likelihood that we’re feeling fearful, but I can also increase the likelihood that we’re feeling that we want to get it right. It’s called accuracy motivation, and that we’re feeling pride in our community, that we’re feeling that we’re part of a collective whole. The question for politicians is, can they find that alternative rhetoric. In theory, that’s the rhetoric on which we were founded and developed as a country. We’ve had periods in which we’ve moved into anger and fear for extended periods, but we bounced back, remember the McCarthyism era? The question is, can we find a rhetoric which is the alternative and make it compelling.

HEFFNER: These tactics that you chronicle are really built for politicians who are going to do the opposite as Donald Trump has aspired to do as you point out with some success in the revisionist history of our vocabulary. One of the most egregious examples of that manipulation was folks in, in North Carolina in particular, if you trace it to the origin, but telling communities that you could text your ballot, you can text your vote. And that was one of the most malicious, deceptive paid ads during the Facebook propaganda buildup in ‘16. It seems like now in North Carolina we have evidence of actual physical individuals going house-by-house and collecting ballots and disposing of them, and so the tactics at work digitally are almost becoming alive in the flesh.

JAMIESON: Well and one of the problems in a digital world is digital communication, although it does many wonderful things – it provides access to information that is positive at unprecedented levels so you can be more informed now than you ever could, but this is a structure that’s set up to play on anger, fear and prejudice, and because you respond quickly and viscerally, when you see lots of people liking and bots can do that, automatic accounts can do that. You will press like and share before you’ve thought and nonetheless add your voice to the other voices and your friends see that and are more likely to accept material that if you had the time to consider carefully, you might actually not have sent in that environment. It is increasingly likely that we’re going to see efforts to mobilize based on fear and prejudice and to demobilize based on quick information that is inaccurate. That suggests that you can do things in ways that you can’t. That’s the appeal that says, well, just text your vote in, it’s just fine, We’ll get your vote.

HEFFNER: Looking specifically at 2020, what is the key to undoing the pervasiveness of that viral deception?

JAMIESON: The platforms have now increased the likelihood that you see the source of the content and identify it. So for example, on YouTube you had RT looking just like it was a reputable news site or are originating in the United States. After all, in 2016 you saw Larry King, formally of CNN, had Schultz formally of MSNBC on that channel. You might well think you’re hearing US originated broadcast, not when you’re looking at YouTube anymore. They now say, our RT gets its funding from the Russian government. Now it also says PBS is partially government funded, trying to play an equal role in identifying across the board, but that means at least you’ll know it’s the Russians, and that’s good news because we use source in assessing message. Now you might say, I love the Russians, happy to be propagandized. More likely you’re going to say, oh, I might be wary of the content. Now, it’s much harder to buy ads if you’re a foreign national. You now have to demonstrate on different platforms that you’re actually inside the United States purchasing in one case by getting content sent to you that you have to send back through the mail system. You’ve got to provide a social security number, a business number, all of that to try to minimize the likelihood that ads, which is the clearest way to micro target are not coming in from the outside. That’s a big improvement too. You also have an increased vigilance about fact checking information, so Facebook now has a collection and factcheck.org, which is part of my policy center as part of it, that we’re trying to feature corrections alongside the misinformation. So if you search for the misinformation, we hope you’ll read the correction first, that’s less likely, you’re less likely as a result to be influenced by all of those things are potentially protective. We need to figure out how we can get more in place and the press needs to tell us that it’s learned the lessons of 2016. It will not uncritically air content. It will tell us when it has an independently verified content. It will tell us who hacked if we know there’s hacking in there, it will not create false scandal narratives and it will keep things in context.

HEFFNER: I’ll commit to those principles. Kathleen, I don’t know if my brethren in the profession will do so and I don’t know what our means of accounting for those values will be. Lastly, in the seconds we have left, what about the macro level? What about the political communication, leadership that I think our country will be hungry for in 2020 to go back to that question of candidates for higher office who are going to use their rhetoric as a means of corrective course. Just like those prescriptions you identified for the journalists, for the citizens, for the academic world. What about the political leadership as an alternative to Donald Trump?

JAMIESON: I think there is a hunger in the country right now for the kind of statement that Ambassador Nikki Haley issued when she said, our opponents are not our enemies. Our opponents are just our opponents. I think everyone who’s running for higher office ought to comfortably make the statement. I think there’s a hunger for recognition that if we delegitimize the press, we have lost our ability to hold those in power accountable. I think there’s a hunger for people trying to articulate the importance of a free press and also the responsibilities that that entails. I think it’s also extraordinarily important that our political leaders on both sides call out the abuses on their own side. We have a tendency to critique excesses on the other side, but not on our own. The most powerful moments and John McCain demonstrated that in 2008 are ones in which someone says to his own followers, followers, we don’t go there. We saw that during John Roberts nomination when a group on the left put up an illegitimate add factcheck.org. Fact checked it almost immediately and people on the left stood up and said, we don’t do that. That’s inappropriate. Take that ad down.

We should look to McCain. We should look to those people on the left. We should say we want more of you in 2020.

HEFFNER: The indefatigable Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Thank you for being here and I say amen to that last point. Thanks.

JAMIESON: Good to be with you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for 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.