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Troll Watch: Russian Interference In 2020

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The big news story in politics this hour is Senator Bernie Sanders. He has won the Democratic caucuses today in Nevada. The outcome cements Sanders' status as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. It also comes in the same week that the Vermont senator confirmed that he was briefed by intelligence officials on Russian efforts to help him win the Democratic race. Also this week, The New York Times reported that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned the House Intelligence Committee last week of Russia's intention to interfere with the 2020 election on behalf of President Trump.

Joining us here in Washington to discuss these two developments is Laura Rosenberger. She is the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. That's a bipartisan advocacy group that aims to stop Russian election interference. Ms. Rosenberger, thanks so much for joining us.

LAURA ROSENBERGER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So if Russia is indeed trying to interfere in the 2020 election campaign, as reports suggest, what's in it for Russia? I mean, why would Moscow want to help both President Trump and Bernie Sanders?

ROSENBERGER: Well, I think one thing that's really important to understand here is that Russia's efforts to interfere in our democracy never stopped after 2016. We actually saw an increase in the activity of Russian social media trolls after the 2016 election. We saw activity around the midterm elections. And then we see that activity continuing today.

MARTIN: So based on your own research, have you seen Russian tactics evolve since 2016? Has it changed in any way?

ROSENBERGER: Well, I think their goals largely remain the same. The tactics have certainly evolved. And in particular, I would say that we see a whole lot less of actual creation of content by Russian operatives themselves. What we see much more of is amplification of divisive narratives and conspiracy theories that Americans are creating ourselves and are lobbing at one another.

MARTIN: It still begs the question, why those two? I mean, I take your point that this is amplifying divisions that already exist and hyping them up. But why those two candidates?

ROSENBERGER: Well, if it's true that a lot of the effort around Bernie Sanders appears to be about dividing Democrats and creating the impression that the process is rigged - which, again, is what we saw in 2016. And in a lot of the monitoring of Russian overt narratives that my organization does, we see a lot of that particular kind of narrative that the Democratic primary process isn't fair, that it's rigged against particular candidates.

What that actually does is not necessarily help Bernie Sanders. In fact, it could actually help President Trump because if Democrats are divided from one another, if Democrats aren't able to come together behind one candidate and consolidate in the general election - which is a lot of what we saw in 2016 - then that actually helps President Trump.

MARTIN: So let's zoom out for a second. The United States is not the first country where elections have been targeted by Russia. Do any examples come to mind of countries that have actually inoculated themselves against Russian interference?

ROSENBERGER: Yeah, a couple of things that we've seen. No. 1, in advance of elections in Germany and France and in Sweden, senior officials, including the heads of state, gave very clear warnings to Russia publicly about what would happen if it took certain steps to interfere in those elections. And in each of those cases, we did not see the very specific kinds of things that were warned about actually happen. We saw some other activities, but not those specific things.

No. 2 is in France but as well as in a lot of the Baltic countries, they've been very good about creating mechanisms to harness civil society as both frontline monitors of what's happening. In the Baltic states, they actually have this group that they call the Baltic Elves. They do a lot of monitoring of social media and provide that analysis.

It's the kind of thing that governments probably are uncomfortable doing. And from a privacy and speech perspective, we don't necessarily want governments watching what we're doing on social media. But civil society can provide that analysis in a really helpful way.

MARTIN: So just briefly, before we let you go, is the United States doing anything to move toward a similar election resiliency, as you call it?

ROSENBERGER: The United States is doing things. It is not doing nearly enough. There are some really good officials that have been putting together efforts. The steps that we saw this week with the president reportedly lashing out at the intelligence community for giving its analysis of what is actually happening undercuts the very efforts that we need to be bolstering at this moment. And so for me, one of my biggest concerns is that politicization of foreign interference as an issue in our democracy is our biggest hurdle to actually addressing it.

MARTIN: And having said that, is there anything that ordinary citizens can be doing?

ROSENBERGER: Yes. So the very first and most important thing that citizens can be doing is to participate in the democratic process. Register. Vote. If you are supporting a candidate, go out there and work for them, you know, volunteer for them. A lot of these efforts are made - are intended to have people lose faith in the process and to say, I don't trust it. My vote's not going to count. Why would I bother? I don't trust the outcome, et cetera. And so the best thing that we can do to inoculate against that of narrative is to actually participate, right? That is so important.

MARTIN: That is Laura Rosenberger. She is the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. And she was kind of to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us.

ROSENBERGER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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