Ten Years Hence: Disinformation and Democracy

Suzanne Spaulding is senior adviser for homeland security and director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She also serves as a member of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. Prior to joining CSIS, Ms. Spaulding was Undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, leading the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), which has since been renamed to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

Read the event recap, watch the video, or listen to the podcast below.


Highlights

  • Russia is the country most vigorous in its efforts to undermine democracy and trust in U.S. democratic institutions (05:38).
  • Russia has three main channels of disseminating disinformation: the social media space, Kremlin-owned media such as the RT television channel, and official government statements. (16:30)
  • “One of the things we’ve [] seen with Russian disinformation is that they will play on both sides. They don’t actually have an ideological dog in this fight, they just want to exacerbate the fight.” (Suzanne Spaulding 20:52)
  • Putin has three main audiences for his disinformation tactics: the Russian population, whom he does not want to long for Western-style democracy; populations of countries in which the U.S. competes with Russia for influence, whom he wants to believe that Washington is corrupt; and the U.S. population, whom the Kremlin wants to persuade that their government is irrevocably broken (26:04).
  • “A big part of Putin’s objective is to drive us into a post-truth world, in which we have given up, we’ve been so inundated with false information, with things we can’t trust, that we no longer believe in the concept of truth.” (Suzanne Spaulding 31:01)
  • Russia most often seizes on domestic narratives that further its own agenda in order to sew disinformation in the U.S. (32:15)
  • “Democracy must be fought for, because it is under attack[…] it is worth fighting for, not because it’s perfect, but because it can be changed—that is the beauty of democracy over authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.”  (Suzanne Spaulding 35:40)
  • “The state of civic education in this country is one that requires urgent addressing.”   (Suzanne Spaulding 39:12)
  • Bolstering STEM education subjects is important, but it cannot come at the expense of a robust civics education (40:43).
  • “What has been my concern with disinformation that undermines the legitimacy of our justice system is that it gives people permission to ignore court decisions, to view them as illegitimate, and I think that’s what we saw on January 6th.” (Suzanne Spaulding 1:03:35)

Event Recap

As was evident from its interference in the 2016 presidential election, no country has done more to actively sow distrust undermine faith in U.S. democracy than Russia. The Kremlin disinformation threat to U.S. public trust and faith in its institutions, and how Washington can counter that threat, was the topic of the third lecture in ND’s Ten Years Hence lecture series. As a former Undersecretary of Homeland Security for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, Suzanne Spaulding has been on the frontlines of the struggle to combat Russian disinformation, work which she has continued in her capacity as Senior Adviser on Homeland Security for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Spaulding pointed out that unlike a rising power such as China, which aims to convince other nations of the superiority of its authoritarian governance model, Russia is a power on the decline, and merely wants to take Washington down with it. Through its three main channels of disseminating disinformation – the social media space through groups such as the Internet Research Agency, Kremlin-owned media such as the RT television channel, and the official statements of the Russian government itself – Russia wants to convince both the U.S. population and its own that the United States is an irredeemably corrupt country not worth emulating.

In terms of the tactics the Kremlin uses, Spaulding made clear that Russia does not have an ideological dog in the fight when it comes to U.S. politics. Its move of choice has been to amplify and distort domestic critiques from left and right groups against aspects of the U.S. government or justice system in order to sow discord, amplify division, and in general undermine the social fabric so essential to a functioning government and society. Putin’s ultimate aim, Spaulding believes, is a “post-truth” world, one in which Americans are so inundated with false information and struggle so much to discern fact from fiction that they lose faith in the concept of truth itself. The result is a public with undermined faith in the legitimacy of its institutions and perhaps even outright hostility towards them, and it is this kind of alienation that makes events such as the January 6th Capitol riot possible.

The Kremlin threat to democracy cannot go unchecked, and there are several steps Washington can take to address it, the most important of which is a bolstering of U.S. Civic Education. Too often in recent years the funding of STEM subjects—a worthy end in itself, Spaulding made clear—has come at the expense of civic education. This has contributed to dismaying poll data among younger Americans questioning the relevance of the U.S. constitution and wondering whether an authoritarian governmental model may be more effective. In order to secure the U.S.’s democratic future, both STEM and robust civic education are necessary. The fight to protect U.S. democracy will not end anytime soon, but Spaulding made clear to her audience that it is a system of government very much worth fighting for, not because it its perfect, but because it can be changed. This is democracy’s advantage over authoritarianism and totalitarianism, and it makes the stakes of Russia’s disinformation campaign against the U.S. all the more important.


View the discussion recorded on Friday, March 12, 2021, with Professor Jim O’Rourke and special guest Suzanne Spaulding, senior adviser for homeland security and director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).


Listen to the discussion wherever, whenever, on The ThinkND Podcast:


Other recaps:

Part 2: Visual Investigations – Innovation in Storytelling
Part 4: Automated Approaches to Detecting, Attributing, and Characterizing Falsified Media 

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