Student Perspective | Authoritarian Threats: Not Just Russia, but Russia for now

Written by: Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Tim Smith, ’19

Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly, the panelists of the joint Tower Center and Bush Center event “Securing Democracy against Authoritarian Threats” on Feb. 26 come from converging but pointedly different backgrounds regarding elections in the United States. Rosenberger was a foreign policy advisor on the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016; Fly had the same job title but as a member of the Marco Rubio campaign. The irony in their joining of fates under the German Marshall Fund is to be appreciated, but it also plays into a message relayed by Rosenberger to the audience gathered there that morning:

“Security should never be a partisan issue.”

Russian interference in the 2016 election cycle was not ideologically driven—there is little evidence to support that Russia is an inherent supporter of the policies espoused by the Trump administration or that they were opposed to the views held by Clinton. What the hackers, fake accounts and trolls sought was to exploit our institutions and to subvert national trust by making us question the legitimacy of elections, a central tenet of American democracy. Internet-oriented attacks of the sort engaged in by Russia previously had high technological costs associated with them and gave little in return. The ubiquity of social media has greatly reduced the costs of these efforts, while enhancing their effects. The timidity of the relevant companies (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to embrace transparency as to how their algorithms have enabled Russian bots and agents to provoke the public and feed them disinformation has frustrated efforts to combat the malicious actors.

The Russian efforts have as such succeeded.

An example of the results of these initiatives can be seen in the story of Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America. Heart of Texas, a Facebook group organized around Texas secessionism and anti-Muslim sentiment, organized a rally in May of 2016 at the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston to “Stop Islamification of Texas.” The United Muslims of America, who touted a message of Muslim inclusivity, organized a counter protest at the same time and place. The two protests ended up having brief altercations with one another. The kicker of it all? Both groups were run by Russians who had no stake in the debate and were organizing the protests remotely, likely from St. Petersburg. This is the Russian hacking campaigns in action. The tension sowed online begins to seep into our day-to-day interactions with one another and produces a jadedness among the citizenry. “We’ve lost confidence,” said the panel, in our elections, and in one another.

Fighting the predicament cannot be encapsulated in just one recommendation. A rule-of-thumb on what should be considered as ‘good’ solutions has been to focus on the hackers and those trying to influence the U.S. public, as opposed to some measures that have tried to restrict the content and place limits on the extent of free speech that Americans enjoy—methods that have been looked at by Congress.

As for direct election tampering, we have a stroke of good luck nestled in the bad. Underfunded electoral regulatory bodies and disunity between the policies from state to state and county to county means that even if the integrity of some votes become compromised, it is likely to be confined only to a small fraction of the overall voting public. This is a small solace. Any access which is gained to polling databases could entail confusion with something as minor as name changes or removals from the registry. These small changes can complicate the voting on election day and cause back-ups at the various stations, increasing the amount of time one takes to cast their ballot, and persuading those waiting in line that it might not be worth it to wait and cast their vote. The Secure Elections Act, supported by the Alliance of Securing Democracy which both Rosenberger and Fly work for, was one congressional plan that would’ve tried to buffer security against attacks like these specifically. It unfortunately stalled in the Senate last year.

Lest you think that the entire event was consumed with the authoritarian threat of Russia, there is also a good reason to fear Chinese actors as well. Fly particularly mentioned that whereas Russia has challenges that it must focus on itself, China has the attention to spare. The Chinese Communist Party is a funding source for Confucian institutes on Chinese studies located in the U.S. and influences the curriculums that are being taught there. The curriculums could subvert democratic values in favor of authoritarian ones.

As the event concluded, I was left pondering unanswered questions. The panelists and moderators made it clear that dictatorial regimes abroad were subverting democracy and making progress, but can this be the sole explanation for what appears to be a global disillusionment in popular government? Populist campaigns such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey eventually turned around and weakened the elements of freedom that were at the core of the country before. How much of this is attributable to foreign meddling from Russia, China or other actors? Are people in these countries falling out of the honeymoon period with democracy and straying to other forms of rule prematurely? Democracy needs to secure itself from threats abroad most assuredly. Should it prepare itself for threats within?