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Democracy Talks: Laura Rosenberger, Alliance for Securing Democracy

Laura Rosenberger discusses the ways in which Vladimir Putin particularly is trying to undermine America’s democracy and how America’s support for democracy and human rights abroad differs from the actions of Russia and China in the affairs of other nations.

Interview with Laura Rosenberger April 28, 2020 //   16 minute read

Laura Rosenberger is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and director of the organization’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. The goal of the alliance is to create and promote strategies that stop foreign actors from undermining democracy around the world. The initiative also documents and exposes how nations like Russia attempt to subvert faith in democratic institutions.

The former State Department and White House official spoke with the Bush Institute’s Lindsay Lloyd, Chris Walsh, and Bill McKenzie about the ways in which Vladimir Putin particularly is trying to undermine America’s democracy, the challenge in remaining an open society while others use modern technologies and the manipulation of information to create doubt about our democratic institutions, and how America’s support for democracy and human rights abroad differs from the actions of Russia and China in the affairs of other nations.

Two years ago, the Alliance for Securing Democracy concluded that “The Kremlin operation to undermine democracy weaponized our openness as a nation, attempting to turn our greatest strength into a weakness, and exploited several operational and institutional vulnerabilities in American government and society.”

So, why is Russia -- more specifically, Vladimir Putin -- intent on causing havoc in our elections?

The elections are a target of Putin’s efforts to weaken America and to interfere in our discourse. They’re not the only target. In fact, elections are part of a much broader strategy Putin has to weaken us. He seeks an asymmetrical advantage in low-cost tools that allow him to undermine the fabric of American democracy and try to weaken us from within.

The elections are a target of Putin’s efforts to weaken America and to interfere in our discourse. They’re not the only target. In fact, elections are part of a much broader strategy Putin has to weaken us.

The major reason he and his cronies are doing this is that Russia is a declining power. Putin needs to find ways to prove to his people that he is a strong leader restoring Russia’s great historical place. He is attempting to weaken others to strengthen himself and his grip on power.

But he has cracked down at home politically, and engaged in efforts to manipulate and control the information space within Russia. He hasn’t held up his end of the bargain with the Russian people: If they compromise on their political rights, they would at least have a flourishing economy. 

He’s not going to make Russia stronger the way that he's leading.

What kind of mischief or damage could this inflict on our elections in November?

We’re undoubtedly more prepared to counter foreign interference than we were in 2016, in particular to mitigate threats to election infrastructure. However, the response has not been as robust as it should be, especially in terms of addressing manipulation of information on social media. 

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Americans understandably have doubts about the integrity of the process, making us even more vulnerable in 2020. When we are predisposed to think that there might be reason to doubt an election’s outcome, it becomes easy for a malicious actor to try to spread false information, claiming the results have been manipulated. If anything, Putin’s play is to throw a little accelerant on the fire occasionally and take advantage of our vulnerabilities.

How do you assess the response of big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter to this challenge? Is it enough? What more needs to be done? 

The social media companies have realized this is a problem they must deal with and have taken some steps, but many are somewhat cosmetic.

This is not an easy problem. One of the important things to remember is we are defending democracy and in defending democracy we can’t do anything that undermines democracy. That includes infringing on freedom of speech. 

But seeing this as a freedom-of-speech issue misses most of the problem. Most of what we’re talking about with the Russians’ tactics or other manipulators’ tactics has nothing to do with content. The problem is how the information’s display has been manipulated.

Most of what we’re talking about with the Russians’ tactics or other manipulators’ tactics has nothing to do with content. The problem is how the information’s display has been manipulated.

For example, false personas are created when somebody claims to be a member of a community that they don’t belong to. Or a huge number of pages being operated by a handful of people or just one person posts the same kind of content simultaneously. The posts can beat algorithms and spread rapidly. Those approaches need investigating by the companies, even around political advertising.

How do you see China taking advantage of our openness with their information operations? 

The Chinese party-state is beginning to experiment with social media operations. But it has many ways to engage in information operations or manipulation that do not involve social media. And much of their social media activity is on Chinese indigenous platforms, such as Weibo or WeChat. They have been much more focused and skilled on those platforms; although, we did see them beginning to use Facebook and Twitter around the Hong Kong protests. 

The social media piece is still an evolving set of tactics for them when it comes to operating in English and aiming at the United States. China’s activities tend to be more focused on shaping perceptions about China and the international rules and government issues that China cares about. They want to tilt the rules in their favor.

China’s activities tend to be more focused on shaping perceptions about China and the international rules and government issues that China cares about. They want to tilt the rules in their favor.

We have not yet seen any significant information activity from China that appears aimed aggressively at our politics. But Beijing has played in politics in places like Australia, where there has been concern about how the Chinese party state has used malign financial influence to essentially buy off politicians to support positions that China finds favorable or to speak in ways that are advantageous to China.

Have you seen the same sort of interference or attempted interference in other democracies recently? If so, is there an example of where it’s been dealt with more or less effectively? 

This goes back to my point that elections are often not the focus of these operations. Thinking of interference in an election misses much of the activity and misunderstands the aim of our adversaries. There are many places where ongoing operations are aimed at division and instilling doubt in people about the integrity and effectiveness of their institutions.

We see a lot of ongoing efforts to manipulate information in numerous places across Europe. There has been disturbing reporting about how Russia is engaging in information manipulation in Africa. And we see Russian media heavily targeting Latin America to manipulate public perception. 

I am interested in how governments organize themselves to respond to these challenges. Canada put together a task force during last year’s election to focus on these issues. They set clear criteria for publicly reporting and exposing operations when they were detected. We didn’t see widespread interference, but efforts were detected in the context of the election and the public was warned. 

There has been concern about the Chinese company Huawei and its 5G technology. Should we worry about different countries incorporating Huawei into their communication networks? Or has this issue been overblown? 

I am absolutely concerned with Huawei technology being incorporated into 5G, but let me take one step back. 

Beijing has invested in developing emerging technologies that can control and potentially manipulate the information that moves through them. Some of these technologies allow for the manipulation of the pipes through which information moves. Chinese law requires the companies that create these technologies, including Huawei, to comply with Communist Party demands for data so Beijing can keep information out or use it as coercive leverage. In fact, much of the conversation around 5G is about the ability to siphon off data, creating real surveillance concerns. 

The other piece that gets buried is the dependency that comes with being an essential part of a network. You are enabling a scenario in which the party state can go to Huawei and essentially tell them that we want you to threaten to shut down the network in X country because they did something we don’t like, we want them to do something, or we don’t want them to say something about an issue. 

Let’s say, for instance, that Germany has Huawei’s 5G network and Angela Merkel decides to host the Dalai Lama. If Beijing doesn’t like that meeting, I could imagine China threatening to disrupt or shut off the network, or just doing it. At that point, you are essentially dictating to a democracy how they engage on human rights or speak about those issues. That’s a different way of manipulating information and interfering in our politics. 

Beijing is also investing in emerging technologies like facial recognition technology. And it isn’t just the technology that’s the issue, but its applications and how China might shape international standards to make those applications acceptable. That presents compelling problems and concerns from a human rights and democracy perspective.  

The tension between wanting to be secure and yet wanting to be free has been playing out since 9/11. How do you see this tension ending up?

I don’t see them being in contention. U.S national security is increasingly intertwined with the defense of democracy. Understanding the governance implication of these technologies has a direct correlation with our security. We have not done enough to make those connections clear.

We tend to silo how we think about technology policy, national security policy, and economic policy. And then democracy and human rights comes somewhere down the totem pole. But all these technologies have direct government implications and huge implications for our security, economic and technology competitions, and the role of innovation.

We need new ways to debate these questions, surface some of the challenges, and have robust conversations between the government, private sector, and civil society. I see direct human rights harms from the applications of certain technologies. And I worry that we are on a glide path where considerations about human rights and democracies get lost and the security piece of it trumps all.

I see direct human rights harms from the applications of certain technologies. And I worry that we are on a glide path where considerations about human rights and democracies get lost and the security piece of it trumps all.

How do you make the case that American support for democracy abroad differs from what other nations, such as Russia and China, may be doing elsewhere?

There are three big distinctions between U.S democracy support and what these authoritarian regimes are trying to do. 

First, we are open and transparent in our engagement with democracy abroad in contrast with what we see these authoritarian regimes doing. They act covertly, they engage coercively, and they have corrupt tactics. We are very open about what we do and why we do it. That’s the first important distinction. 

Second, we are working to strengthen democratic institutions. That is the core of U.S. democracy support. Authoritarian regimes are working to weaken democratic institutions. They have an adverse objective. The U.S model is about empowering people to make decisions about their lives.

We are working to strengthen democratic institutions. That is the core of U.S. democracy support. Authoritarian regimes are working to weaken democratic institutions. They have an adverse objective.

That is what democracy support is all about. We are not trying to weigh in on who should be the leader of a particular country. The people should have the ability through free and fair elections, strong robust institutions, and a free media to make that decision. 

Third, we make that support available across political spectrums. It’s not about picking a party or candidate or only supporting this political perspective. If you’re a democratic actor working for democracy in your country, then you deserve our support. 

The United States and authoritarian regimes are working to achieve polar opposite ends.

Beyond Russia and China, are there other actors or countries that give you concern about developing or deploying efforts to interfere in other democracies?

China and Russia are more sophisticated with their tools, but the playbook is out there. It’s easy to adopt these tactics. 

One of my biggest concerns is non-state actors employing some of these tactics. There are disinformation-for-hire companies on the black market. Many operate out of Russia, although some operate elsewhere, including in countries with which the United States has a good relationship. 

I am specifically worried about Iran, which has shown the ability to engage in information manipulation on social media. The vast majority of those efforts are around geopolitical issues Iran cares about. Its efforts are about shaping public perception and debate around those issues, not about U.S politics.

But there is potential for Iran to have a changing set of interests, so it might begin to engage on that front. Iran also has the cyber capability, if it chose, to launch a cyber-attack at some part of our democratic institutions or electoral process.

I am less worried about North Korea in this context. They certainly have the capacity on the cyber front. The attack on Sony Pictures in 2014, and the release of those embarrassing materials, was a weaponized information campaign. It was hack-and-leak. 

What can American citizens do to make themselves more resilient to this misinformation?

Basic fact-checking is important. Just because we agree with someone online, we shouldn’t necessarily believe what they’re saying is right or true. Being a discerning consumer of information is important. It’s always better if you can confirm something from multiple sources.

Many election officials have been great about setting up trusted channels around elections. That’s always the best place to go to confirm information.