We chat with the German Marshall Fund's Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly, who have done extensive research on why the U.S. and other countries are under attack from Russia and China.
Foreign authoritarian powers like Russia and China are attacking our democracy. They have interfered in our elections and have used social media as a weapon. We chatted with Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly who have done extensive research on why America and other countries are under attack. Tune in and learn what signs you should be looking for as your scroll through your social feeds.
Read the episode transcript
00:00 Jenna Spinelle: Hey everyone, my name is Jenna Spinelle, and I host a podcast called Democracy Works. If you enjoy The Strategerist thought-provoking conversations and discussion of “What Unites Us as Americans,” you’ll wanna check it out. Each episode examines a different aspect of what it means to live in a democracy and the role that each of us has to play in building and sustaining a healthy democracy. New episodes are released every Monday, and you can find them at democracyworkspodcast.com or by searching “Democracy Works” in your favorite podcast app.
00:35 Andrew Kaufmann: Foreign authoritarian powers like Russia and China are attacking our democracy. They have interfered in our elections, and have used social media as a weapon. Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly, from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, have done extensive research on why America and other democratic countries are under attack.
00:53 Laura Rosenberger: The reason that Russia is attacking our democracy is our democracy is the core of our strength, and hitting us at that strength is really a means for Putin to try to weaken us as a country.
01:11 AK: In an example of just how dangerous these attacks can be, Jamie and Laura, tell us how foreign powers have used social media to turn Americans against each other, not just online, but in person too.
01:23 Jamie Fly: Even the media and the police had no clue at that moment, that this was entirely organized by foreign actor.
01:30 AK: America’s strength lies in its democracy. But as a consumer of social media, are you able to tell what’s legitimate debate versus outside noise? Listen in and become a more thoughtful consumer of social media. I’m Andrew Kaufmann, and this is The Strategerist presented by the George W. Bush Institute.
01:52 AK: What happens when he crossed the 43rd President, late night sketch comedy, the compelling conversation. The Strategerist, a podcast formed from the word strategery, which was coined by SNL and embraced by the George W. Bush administration. We highlight the American spirit of leadership and compassion through thought-provoking conversations, and we’re reminded that the most effective leaders are the ones who laugh.
02:17 AK: We have a pair of experts on today to talk about social media and how outside countries are trying to use that social media to chip away the core of our democracy. We have Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and senior fellow, the German Marshall Fund of the US. Laura, thanks so much for being here.
02:34 LR: Thanks for having me.
02:35 AK: And we have Jamie Fly, the senior fellow and co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Jamie, thank you so much for being here.
02:42 JF: Thanks for having us.
02:43 AK: And also we have one of our internal experts from the Bush Institute, Chris Walsh, who’s on our human freedom team, Chris.
02:50 Chris Walsh: Thanks Andrew, it’s great to be here. And actually, if I can kick things off, Laura, I heard you recently say something that really resonated with me, and I think it’s something that’s underappreciated. You said democracy is an ongoing project and it’s never finished, and I think that’s not something we think about. So before we get into the broader topics about stuff that I know you’re all working on in terms foreign malign influence, and Russians and Chinese try to undermine our democratic process, let’s take a step back. I was thinking about this, and I think in our space, it’s natural to say, “Rah, rah democracy,” we all believe in it, it’s all the way to go, but we see the numbers in different polls that we have. We have a poll here the Democracy Project that we do with Freedom House and the Penn Biden Center that shows that there’s a real crisis of confidence in democracy nowadays and the institutions. I actually took an informal poll at my house with my kids the other day, my eight-year-old… I know, I thought so and I said, “Do you guys think democracy is a good thing?” And I was pretty proud, my eight-year-old put his little fist pump and said, “Democracy.” But as we think about a crisis of confidence in democracy, what about democracy, free markets, a free and open society is worth defending?
04:02 LR: Oh, boy. Well, thank you for starting off with this, Chris, ’cause I think it is really important point, and if I can go back to some of the founding documents of of our country, our forefathers, and they were all forefathers in the document writing, talked about the need to form a more perfect union. But it wasn’t a perfect union, it was a more perfect union, framed in a way that is something that we always need to strive for. The United States has had a lot of blemishes throughout history, whether that was treatment of Native Americans, whether that was slavery, whether that was various forms of religious discrimination. We have a lot of blemishes, but we’ve always sought to perfect ourselves, to improve what it is that our founding fathers really set out, which was a nation where people are at the center of what we do, that government is responsive to the people, and that it is those interests that actually propel forward human creativity, growth, prosperity. And so for me, what’s worth defending is, number one, the civil liberties and human rights that I believe deeply in, that are really embedded in our core founding documents and everything that we’ve done as a nation since.
05:35 LR: I believe that the values that the United States has championed, not just at home but around the world, are the values to which we should all continue to aspire. That means recognizing where we fall short, that means constantly working to perfect ourselves, but that also means that democracy is hard. It involves compromise, it involves needing to understand other perspectives, and it involves needing to not just have a tyranny of either the majority or the minority. Our system of checks and balances was set up to guard against both of those things, but that means that compromise is something that’s really always at the center of it, which is why I’m really glad to be doing this project that we’re talking about today in a bipartisan way because I think it is something that is necessary to that constant striving to always work on the democratic project and never believe that the job is finished.
06:41 AK: So Jamie, what made you guys want to do this project? Was there a moment where you said to yourself, “This is a real problem and we need to get to the bottom of it.” What’s happening and what caused you to go down this road?
06:54 JF: Well, I think for both of us, and Laura can speak to her experience, the formative experience was the 2016 campaign on opposite sides of the aisle. I was Senator Rubio’s foreign policy advisor during that campaign and working with him in the senate. And even before I knew Laura, what I experienced and watched play out both in the Republican primary and then in the general election disturbed me deeply in terms of the tactics that we saw. In that case, Russia employ within our democracy in an attempt to undermine Americans’ free speech, their confidence in the system. And as a long-time national security professional, someone who worked in the Bush administration including in part on Russia policies, doing some arms control work, and watched President Bush’s relationship with Vladimir Putin evolve over those eight years… I remember working in the NSC in the late months of the Bush administration, when we saw Russia invade Georgia. We had spent a lot of our time during those eight years trying to find ways to carve out areas of cooperation with Russia under Putin.
08:00 JF: And at the end of the day, I think we realized that we hadn’t gotten as far as we had hoped, and so someone who was passionate about US policy towards Russia about moving Russia in a better direction, now to see them flip the table essentially, and start to undermine our own democracy was deeply disturbing. And so when I met Laura and heard about her experiences and some of her ideas for raising awareness about this challenge, it was incredibly appealing because I think ultimately, we don’t want in future elections, the country to go through the same situation that we faced in 2016. And unfortunately now, we’ve seen in subsequent elections in 2018 even, when it maybe wasn’t as high profile and is focused on a particular political candidate, but we’ve seen this attempt for authoritarian actor to insert themselves into our civic debates in a way that is deeply disturbing.
08:58 AK: What is Russia getting out of this? Why are they doing this? What’s their motivation?
09:03 LR: Well, I think their motivation is several-fold and one that goes back to what Chris has put in the beginning, why is this something that’s worth defending? Well, the reason that Russia is attacking our democracy is our democracy is the core of our strength. And hitting us at that strength is really a means for Putin to try to weaken us as a country. It’s not about firing bullets at us or piercing our borders through military means. In some ways, I think of it as more insidious and in terms of almost planting cancer from within, and corrupting or weakening the institutions from within. It’s harder to see attacks, physical attacks are much easier to point to, but this is really about weakening our pillars from within. Putin is acting himself, though, out of weakness. Russia is a declining power, its economy is shrinking, Putin is increasingly cracking down. He’s never been very good on human rights and political freedom, but his authoritarian group on the country has continued to grow stronger and stronger as he feels more and more insecure. And so Putin has needed to find ways to weaken others as a means of gaining relative power.
10:30 LR: Russia isn’t going to grow as an economic powerhouse or return to being a global superpower, but if Putin can level the playing field a bit by weakening his adversaries, by attacking us in this way, then he can both tell his people, “Hey, look, democracy is a mess. Look at what’s happening over there. It’s not really working out well for them,” number one. Number two, he can say, “Look, hey, I’m restoring Russia to our previous greatness. We’re talked about all the time now. I’m talked about as this big threat, and I’m challenging all these countries that are trying to hurt us and all that.” And so Putin gains legitimacy, he’s able to use it to gain legitimacy at home and to potentially discredit democracy, and then really just keep the US and our European allies knocked off our game. Trying to sow disunity among us is part of his tactic, too. It’s not just about attacking us internally in our politics, but it’s about splitting the US and our European allies, creating divisions within NATO, all of that. That allows Putin to really just to act as the spoiler. He’s not playing the long game in trying to really create something; he’s mostly just trying to be a destructive force, and he’s playing a weak end quite well.
11:48 AK: Can you give a tangible example of how he’s used social media? Apart from the elections, can you give some examples of what things he’s done to chip away this democracy?
12:02 JF: One thing we’ve seen even before the 2016 election is the use of social media to actually foment physical protests, and in one case here at Texas and Houston. And some of that was just online organizing, the sort that any civic group or political party would do, reaching out to potential supporters of their cause, attracting people to their Facebook page who share a certain viewpoint. In this case, in Texas, it was opposing groups that were supporting states rights versus a group of American Muslims, and a protest was advertised on social media for the same day, same place, same time for both groups. Neither group had any clue, the pages weren’t linked, that both sides were gonna show up physically in Houston. Luckily, in that case, and people did show up, and this was entirely created externally by someone sitting in a foreign country. Those people honestly thought that they were responding to information put out by fellow Americans to advocate for causes they felt passionate about. Luckily in that case local law enforcement was there, and kept the group on two sides of the same street. And if you actually look back, there’s local media coverage of these protests at the time. And even the media and the police had no clue at that moment, that this was entirely organized by foreign actor.
13:32 AK: This is almost trying to light the spark that’ll light the fire.
13:36 JF: That’s the danger, and luckily in that case there was no violence. We see more tied to elections and special counsel Muller and some of his indictments has highlighted that these same tactics were used for rallies or gatherings in other states in the run-up to the actual election day where people thought that they were coming out to support their candidate primarily, in this case is Donald Trump. And they thought that someone, a town over or two towns over was getting them together, but again, these were operatives operating out of Russia who were actually bringing together Americans for that purpose. Now, those Americans have a right to organize for whatever candidate they want, the malign aspects here is that you can be easily manipulated online. And even to this day, the interesting thing is some of these Americans have been approached by the media after these operations have been revealed. Many Americans don’t even wanna believe that they were manipulated, which is the sad thing.
14:32 JF: And you see this across both the left and the right as this infiltration of activist groups is often revealed. It’s so damaging, I think, to many Americans’ perceptions of their activity and themselves that they don’t wanna believe it. And so I think we as a society just need to become more aware of these tactics. That doesn’t mean you should stop your civic activism; if anything you should probably increase it. But you should be careful about who you’re doing it with and why you’re doing it, for what cause, and what ultimate purpose.
15:03 CW: How do we reach people where they are and say, “This affects you every day, this is getting you at your everyday life, it’s affecting the way you live your life, care about it.” Essentially, how do we get to a point where we get people to say, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore,” to get some passion about it, to get to recognize it’s urgent?
15:23 LR: I think it starts with a couple of things. One is, Americans are very proud and should be of our democracy and our freedoms, but our ability to engage in free speech, in speech on political issues, hot, divisive, political issues, is something that we should protect until the end of the earth. And I will go down swinging for the ability… For Americans I disagree with to be able to say what they believe, and for me to be able to have a robust debate with them. But what I don’t believe we should have, and what I actually think undermines our very ability to do that is when we have some outside force coming in and manipulating that debate without either of us knowing that that debate is being manipulated.
16:16 LR: Jamie and I argue about tons of policy issues. I’m a Democrat, he’s a Republican, we disagree on a number of different things. Don’t get us started on our own policy here, but I believe that Jamie and I have not only a right, but personally, I believe we as citizens have an obligation to have those conversations with one another. But that can’t actually be productive and constructive and have an outcome that is in any way conducive to advancing policy or democracy if that debate is being manipulated by some third party covertly in the process. And so I think that the ability for Americans to be able to say, “I want my free speech and I don’t want anybody messing with it,” understanding that it is a foreign adversary that is trying to come in and very much undercut the ability of Americans to have political discourse on the issues of the day is to me really at the core of this piece of the question.
17:27 AK: So Jamie, last night, I got on Facebook and I watched some highlights from Luka Doncic and the NBA-All Star Game, and wished a friend happy birthday on his wall. As I’m just browsing my social media, and just going about my day, what should I be looking for?
17:43 JF: I think the bottom line from my perspective is, people need to ask more questions about why they’re seeing certain information. Certainly, if they’re going to click through and read what appears to be a news story, there’s often advertisements that are masked or almost come across as a news story, ask who put that there? What’s the ultimate source? Is it a legitimate news organization? Why am I seeing this? It’s one thing if it’s a friend’s post about something going on in their lives obviously, that’s why a lot of people are on, especially Facebook. But if it is pushing a political message or some other message about some development in society, I would just be very careful and make sure that you try to figure out why it’s there, where it’s coming from.
18:31 JF: And to pick up on what Laura was just talking about, the other concerning thing for me, I mean I understand foreign policy is not a… It’s rarely a top priority for many Americans in their day-to-day lives. And why should it be? They’ve got many other things going on. The dangerous thing especially about the trends we’re seeing in social media is almost all of these tools can be used by other actors, whether it’s corporations, wealthy individuals who are trying to push a certain political agenda which may have nothing to do with foreign policy goals. It could even be something related to your community if someone wants to get something done in your community on a very local issue but they have money and they’ve got the technical know-how to start a social media campaign to push it covertly. That’s becoming easier and easier to do. And we’ve actually seen some trends now because of the success of what the Russians have done on social media. We’ve certainly seen other foreign actors begin to dabble in this space. But there’s also some disturbing trends that American actors have begun to adopt some of these tactics for their own purposes.
19:34 JF: And so, if you may think I don’t care about Ukraine, I don’t care about Europe policy, I don’t care what Vladimir Putin does in the Middle East, that’s fine. I may disagree with you. But at the end of the day this could come back and hit you very close to home. Whether it’s a local election or some local zoning issue that’s being debated in your community, these tactics may be applied to shift opinion one way or the other, and ultimately, that’s the real danger. I think especially about the social media influence campaigns that we’re starting to see and the ultimate way to deal with that is more education, more awareness, more caution when you’re online across the board, asking as many questions as possible, and especially with your kids, for instance, teaching them to be better consumers and smarter consumers of information that they see online.
20:24 CW: And Jamie I’ll ask you this, but Laura please jump in. I think I told you already that one of the things that I really admire about what you all are doing is that this is bipartisan. Jamie you’re Republican, Laura you’re a Democrat. This is what the America that I want, coming together on a common issue. Yes, you said you disagree on stuff, but I feel like in this country, you see that maybe there’s a belief that if you do believe in this foreign malign influence, that it’s one way or another or one party feels it only targets one, is this a threat to Republicans, Democrats, independents, everybody?
21:00 JF: Yeah, I call it equal opportunity in terms of the threat. And we’ve seen this both in the Russian case. We in our monitoring of their social media tactics and looking at the issues and the groups that they often are pushing, you see them try to infiltrate progressive activists as much as conservative activists. Unfortunately, in the debate we’ve been having post-2016, this is seen as a very partisan issue because it’s tied to other issues related to the Mueller investigation allegations of collusion. But at the end of the day for me and I try to remind my Republican friends: You can be Donald Trump’s biggest supporter, and still be concerned about this issue. It has nothing to do with any debate in Washington about collusion. You can believe that Donald Trump was fairly elected and still be concerned about the fact that foreign powers, in this case Russia, are trying to manipulate our democracy. So we need to get away I think from a lot of the partisan politics on this issue, and Republicans bear a lot of responsibility for that, and Laura and I also try to call out Democrats as well when they try to take this serious issue and use it for partisan gain.
22:10 JF: The interesting thing is, we’ve actually seen a lot of bipartisan initiatives in Congress, especially in the middle-to-late last year, that started to bubble up, bipartisan bills from strange bed fellows on this issue often because of the broader political climate though honestly, not many of those bills have moved through Congress yet. I think we’re still hopeful that over time that that may change. But people need to realize that both sides of the aisle are affected here. The Russians and other authoritarian actors are not partisans. They don’t care about one party over the other; they just wanna foment debate and this kind of civil unrest in some of these cases, and pit Americans against each other. And to do that they’re perfectly willing to masquerade online as Democrats one day or one hour and Republicans the next. And, I don’t think yet there’s enough awareness about that fact; it’s still seen through very a partisan lens.
23:05 AK: So Laura, what do you think we’re gonna see in the lead up to the 2020 elections?
23:10 LR: So, we already see a continuation, the use of social media to manipulate our discourse never stopped after the 2016 election. In fact there was actually a substantial increase in the amount of activity from known accounts operated by Russian trolls in 2017. Actually, in many ways, trying to take advantage of the anger that bubbled up on the left in response to President Trump’s election, this sort of angry emotional outpouring provided a very fertile ground for potential manipulation particularly around divisive issues.
23:55 AK: Equal opportunity.
23:56 LR: Equal opportunity. And so we saw that activity increase in the run up to the mid-terms, that activity continued as well. There was an indictment from the Department of Justice about a month before the mid-term elections against the Internet Research Agency, which is what’s often talked about as the “Saint Petersburg troll farm”. That was indicted earlier once for its activity in the 2016 election and then there was the subsequent indictment or charges against actually a bookkeeper for the Internet Research Agency but a month before the mid-terms basically saying that those activities had continued and very similar kinds of tactics. Fake accounts masquerading as Americans, attempts to recruit activists to take some kind of action offline, the creation of… One of the things that I think has been really worrisome for us is this creation of an ecosystem of web pages that masquerade as whether it’s pretending to be a local news site or some other kind of site that is again purporting to be something that it’s not. And then that those links to those sites are then shared through this network of accounts as well, driving Internet traffic to different websites.
25:19 LR: I think as we run into 2020, we’re gonna see a number of different tactics, many of it continuation, many of it an evolution of those things. One of the most concerning things that has been getting a lot of attention now is the way that artificial intelligence may actually enhance the ability to create false or manipulated information. And so there’s been a lot of conversation about something that’s called “Deep fakes” which is audio content, video content that is manipulated, both the video and the audio of it so that it essentially is imperceptible to the human eye that it has been manipulated, including for well-known public figures. And there’s a lot of concern that these kinds of video content, there’s the ability to create this kind of content is becoming much more readily available. And I think a lot of people may believe that, “Okay, so written information I’ve gotta be a little skeptical,” but we trust what we see with our own eyes. That’s sort of what we are kind of brought up to do.
26:34 LR: And the idea that suddenly now video could appear that is we think we see something, say there’s a debate in the 2820 elections, and a candidate says, “Well I believe, and have always believed X, Y, Z.” And five minutes after the debate ends a video appears online of that politician appearing to say the exact opposite five years ago on some highly emotional issue. And then there’s outrage sparked and this person’s a hypocrite and we can’t believe anything they say because they’re lying, clearly duh-duh-duh. And you can see where that cascades and then maybe in the next, I don’t know, 24 hours, that video is actually discredited and proven fake. But in the interim, that response of doubting that person’s credibility probably sticks in at least some people. And one of the things that we found that’s a problem with an approach to dealing with this kind of content from a sort of fact-checking mindset is that lies spread much faster and further than truths, and a lot of people who may see some manipulated content bearing in mind that, again, a lot of it’s not about false or not, but a lot of people may never realize that what they saw wasn’t in fact true. So those kinds of high-end technologies I think are a big concern for a lot of people as we head in to 2020.
28:04 AK: And it’s kind of human nature to look for and share content that you find that agrees with your worldview. So if it’s fake or not is often secondary when you’re in the moment you’re like, “Oh, I totally agree with that. I’m gonna share that.”
28:17 LR: That’s right.
28:17 AK: That’s just human nature, not on a completely non-partisan way. It’s just how the mind works.
28:23 JF: Well, this is a big part of the broader problem with the direction of our society on many of these issues is… And technology has enabled a lot of this is, I think many Americans are increasingly consuming news and information from other Americans who agree with them for the most part. It’s not always the case, but because so much of this debate about issues has been taken off of mainstream and online, a lot of the way that the platforms had been set up originally has reinforced that desire to kind of affiliate with people who think like me and only to engage with people like that.
29:03 AK: And the algorithms help with that, too.
29:05 JF: The algorithms are a huge part of it. So one thing that we’ve always advocated for, is that the company should be much more upfront about how the algorithms are working. Now, the companies will tell you that all of them have taken various measures to tweak the algorithms and try to change this over time, but there has not been a lot of public conversation about the way the algorithms work. The companies guard that information very closely, and I think many Americans don’t even realize that they may be falling into this trap where they’re only seeing certain types of information. They may have a thousand friends on Facebook that are incredibly diverse, but the algorithm may be only showing them information from 50 of those people who are very similar to them and most… It’s not something that they chose in their privacy settings or in their news feed settings. It was pushed on them by the companies primarily for commercial reasons, and so there’s a lot of work I think that can be done in that space.
30:03 JF: The other part of it getting down to the local level, is people can just take a lot of this back offline. Ideally, that’s what would happen. You’d see people invest the time they have if they wanna engage in political debates more in person, through civic organizations through their local communities to engage more on that person-to-person level rather than doing all of this on the internet. But that’s a big part of reinforcing often what you already think suddenly pops up on your news feed and you feel that validation of your previously held view.
30:40 CW: We’re talking about 2020 elections. And that sends my mind to the holiday dinner table and some uncomfortable conversations come up. The subject comes up, United States is no different than one of the authoritarian regimes, who are at the end of the day, trying to assert their own ideological, their own national goals. How is it different from what we’re doing in terms of promoting American values and democracy as opposed to what the Russians or the Chinese or the North Koreans or the Iranians are doing in terms of trying to undermine that democratic system?
31:14 LR: So I think about this in a few different ways, and it’s an important question. The first is that when the US engages in democracy promotion activities, we do so in an open and transparent way. We don’t hide anything about the fact that we’re supporting activists and democratic fighters and Human Rights champions around the world and we do it proudly, we do it openly and we do it transparently. And so I think that that is one point that’s really important. Point two, it’s really important is, in a lot of the places where we do engage in some of the activities that are more focused on helping political parties and candidates in the election process, that activities all undertaken, that capacity building is all undertaken in a way that is available to parties across the political spectrum. We don’t sort of pick and choose a side or WHO groups like NDI, IRI, the National Endowment for democracy, these arms, non-governmental arms that do a lot of this work. They engage with a wide group of political parties or certainly make their services available to them.
32:32 LR: And then the last point for me which is I think the most important is that, what the United States does in its efforts to promote democracy is about giving individuals, the voice in their own countries to determine their futures. It goes back to where you started in a way about government that’s responsive to the people, and that has to be about sort of citizen-led democracy and we sort of champion the strengthening of institutions and the building of them. And what Putin is doing is actually the mere opposite of all those things. He does things covertly, he chooses sides. And by choosing sides, that may be sort of choosing both sides and pitting them against each other, but it’s not about trying to actually empower voices from within. And then it’s really about destroying those institutions, it’s about weakening democracy. It’s the very antithesis of the building that we seek to do.
33:31 AK: Laura, that’s a great way to close this. I really appreciate the time spent that you with us this morning. I really appreciate it.
33:38 LR: Thank you so much.
33:38 AK: And Jamie, thank you very much for taking the time as well. This has been a great conversation.
33:42 JF: Thank you for having us on.
33:45 AK: If you enjoyed today’s episode and would like to help us spread the word about The Strategerist, please give us a five-star review and tell your friends to subscribe. We’re available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all the major listening apps. If you’re tuning in on a smartphone, tap or swipe over the cover art. You’ll find episode notes with helpful information and details you may have missed. The Strategerist was produced by Ioanna Papas at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas. Thank you for listening.