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Disinformation, poor civic literacy imperil U.S. democracy

Feb. 17, 2020

U.S. democratic institutions are being attacked from external as well as internal forces, posing a national security threat that can no longer be ignored, according to security experts. What’s more, countries like Russia, China and Iran are using disinformation to wreak havoc on the U.S. election and judicial systems, and a lack of civic literacy in the U.S. is aiding these trends.

Recent disinformation efforts included leaking of hacked emails and propaganda on social media.

Recent disinformation efforts included leaking of hacked emails and propaganda on social media.

Paul Campbell / iStock / Getty Images Plus

That was the assessment of Suzanne Spaulding and Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, two former national security advisors who spoke at the program “Beyond the Ballot: How the Kremlin Works to Undermine the U.S. Justice System,” presented Feb. 13 during the National Association of Bar Executives Midyear Meeting held in conjunction with the ABA Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas. 

Spaulding talked about the forces coming out of the Kremlin that are attacking our institutions, particularly the U.S. justice system.

She said some of the disinformation found during the 2016 election involved malicious cyberactivity around voter registration databases, hacking and leaking of emails and propaganda on social media. “But what we saw in 2016 was just part of a broader, longer-term campaign to undermine democracy and that to me is the important message that has gotten lost,” she warned.

Parker is a former general counsel for the CIA and the National Security Agency and is now a consultant with the Defending Democratic Institutions (DDI) project, which has developed four areas in response to this national security threat. They are:

  • Increase court security
  • Recognize the disinformation threat
  • Build response mechanisms
  • Improve civic education

She said DDI has been working with state bar associations and the courts to respond to disinformation in the judicial system. Arizona and California have launched pilot programs that she believes will be national models.

A second part of the response is developing programs to make the American public more civic literate, noting that a 2017 survey found that 37% of people could not name any guaranteed First Amendment rights, 33% could not name any branch of government and only 26% could name all three.

“The threat to democracy in our civic education is one we need to take seriously,’’ she said. “Disinformation is designed to undermine our political system.”

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