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February 14, 2020

Disinformation campaigns from Kremlin, others ramp up as 2020 election approaches

The U.S. democracy and 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 United States is aiding these trends.

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 ABA Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas. The program was sponsored by the National Association of Bar Executives. 

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

While countries such as China, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also engaged in activities to undermine public trust and confidence in U.S. democracy and its institutions, Russia is by far the most active, she said.

Spaulding, who served as undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security and is now senior advisor for the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said some of the malevolent activity they saw during the 2016 election included malicious cyber activity around U.S. voter registration databases, and the 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,” Spaulding warned, explaining that the U.S. is primarily focused on election interference, while losing sight of the bigger picture – the erosion of American democracy.

Parker is a former general counsel the CIA and the National Security Agency and is now a consultant with the Defending Democratic Institutions Project, which has developed four areas in response to this national security threat. Those four elements are:

  • Increase court security
  • Be aware of the disinformation threat
  • Build response mechanisms
  • Need for civic education

She said DDI has been working with state bar associations and the courts on best practices for responding to disinformation in the judicial system. She said Arizona and California have launched pilot programs that she believes will be models for the rest of the country to follow. 

Such programs are focused on identifying disinformation, distinguishing it from legitimate criticism, as well as looking at the role of social media in combatting the problem and whether the courts should have a place in the social media space.

“The bottom line is that these kinds of mechanisms need to be put in place before attacks occur because if you wait until an attack has occurred it’s going to be too late,” Parker said.

She said 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 respondents could not name any guaranteed First Amendment rights, 33% could not name any branch of government and only 26% could name all three.

Parker said the push is on to work with state educational systems to add civic classes to school curriculums and that her organization is working with the ABA Division of Public Education and other groups like CiviX Now.

“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.”

“Beyond the Ballot: How the Kremlin Works to Undermine the U.S. Justice System” was sponsored by the National Association of Bar Executives.