Considered opinionShining more light every day on Russia’s political interference

By Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly

Published 24 November 2017

“Despite this clear threat to American democracy, and the unanimous assessment of the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the election in an operation ordered by Vladimir Putin, real discussion of how to halt these activities and prevent them in the future is only beginning now. This is partly driven by a continued partisan divide on the issue — which is being fueled by the Kremlin’s ongoing influence efforts and Putin’s own denials to President Donald Trump. Trump’s repeated statements casting doubt on his own intelligence community’s assessment and the unwillingness of many Republican leaders to defend the truth continue to fan these partisan flames.  Allowing Russian interference to become a partisan issue plays right into Russia’s hands and achieves Putin’s goals,” Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly write. “This is not about relitigating who won the election. Trump is the president. This is about defending American democracy from attacks by foreign enemies.”

One year after the 2016 presidential election, more facts are emerging about Russia’s broad, systematic efforts to undermine American democracy and help Donald Trump win the presidential election. The recent congressional hearings, and reports by the U.S. intelligence community, on the Russian government’s use of social media platforms to interfere in U.S. politics, force Americans to face the undeniable and uncomfortable fact that these tools have been weaponized by Russia and pointed at Americans. “From fake personas to fake organizations, to political advertisements, to recruitment of real people to film YouTube videos for Russian entities, to organizing real-life protests using social media platforms, the Kremlin has sought to weaken the fabric of American society and undermine the pillars of its democracy,” Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly write in War on the Rocks.

The continue:

[I]t’s clear that the Russian government made a concerted attempt to interfere with Americans’ most precious rights, an act so detrimental to the foundations of democracy that Alexander Hamilton warned about it in the Federalist Papers. And it’s clear that the Russians learned much from their use of social media platforms and other attempts to probe the U.S. voting system. We must assume that they will try to do even more in 2018 and 2020 if the United States lets them.

Moreover, as several members of Congress have underscored, this is not just about the past — nor is it just about elections. Russian-government information operations continue to target Americans today. The Hamilton 68 dashboard, which tracks content being promoted by Kremlin-oriented social media accounts, has shown the promotion of content that plays to divisions in American society, fans the flame of extremism, and targets individuals believed to be at odds with Russia’s interests.

Russian disinformation specialists have not created the social tensions or cultural conflicts in America. Rather, the Russian specialists use false stories and fake news to amplify, intensify, and exploit such conflicts in order to create a public climate more hospitable to Trump’s populist, protectionist, white-identitarian messages and policies (thus, the Kremlin’s disinformation outfit, the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, has been posting inflammatory messages and fake stories on social media, in support of Trump’s attacks on African American football and basketball players).

Rosenberg and Frye note that the Russians are aided in their campaign to undermine American democracy by American networks. “When stories are in the news that are unfavorable to the Kremlin, these networks promote alternative content that seeks to ‘dismiss, distract, distort, and dismay.’ For instance, following the indictment of former Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, the networks amplified content about Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta’s ties to Russian-linked oligarchs in a classic attempt to muddy the waters.”

Rosenberg and Frye add:

Even as we struggle to understand and address the scope of Russia’s information operations, it’s important to remember that this is only one of the tools the Kremlin continues to use to undermine democracy. The Kremlin’s toolkit combines information operations with cyberattacks, money laundering, economic coercion, and support for extremist groups. These tools are often deployed in concert to achieve the Putin regime’s goal: a weakened, divided, and distracted America.


The foreign interference problem will never be eliminated entirely, but the current approach in many ways is like leaving the front door of a house unlocked and open after the house has already been robbed.

The effort to defend against foreign interference starts with strengthening the pillars of American democracy. Americans are not increasingly at odds solely because of Russia. The Kremlin is exploiting fault lines and divisions that have existed for some time in many cases. Americans need to learn how to conduct civil discourse even when they disagree about policies. Given the president’s proclivities, more leadership on this front needs to come from members of Congress and leaders at the state and local level.

Putin is trying to weaken the United States as a country by undermining its core strength — and Americans are letting him do so with next to no resistance. Congressional hearings on one aspect of the problem are a good first step, but the United States has a long way to go before its democracy is secure. It is long past time to learn the lessons of 2016 to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and to defend American institutions against ongoing efforts to weaken them. Congress, the administration, the tech companies, the media, and all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, must begin to do their part to tackle the foreign interference problem.

Read the full article: Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly, “Shining More Light Every Day on Russia’s Political Interference,” War on the Rocks (13 November 2017)