Council on Foreign Relations

“Ethical Markets recommends the video of the Council on Foreign Relations conference on dealing with social media and misuse of bots, hackers and fake news. The best discussion on this recently!   ~Hazel Henderson, Editor“


This is the second session of the Hacked Elections, Online Influence Operations, and the Threat to Democracy symposium. 

The panelists will explore how the United States and the tech community can respond to foreign actors’ use of online platforms to propagate disinformation and amplify specific viewpoints.

This symposium will convene policymakers, business executives, and other opinion leaders for a candid analysis of the cybersecurity threat to democracies, particularly to the election systems themselves and the subsequent attempts to shape the public debate through disinformation and online commentary.


KORNBLUH: All right. Can we have everyone sit down, please? Can we have everyone sit down? Thanks. Thank you.

Hi. Welcome to the second session of today’s symposium. This is titled “Combating Online Information Operations.” I’m Karen Kornbluh, senior fellow for digital policy at the Council.

And we’re very lucky to have these experts with us to discuss this issue. We have Renee DiResta, Thomas Rid, and Clint Watt(s). I anticipate a very lively and fascinating conversation.

I wanted to start with Thomas. When the Supreme Court in the U.S. decided Citizens United back in 2010, it predicated the whole idea that corporations should be able to spend money in elections because the internet, you know, which was then seen as this great engine of transparency and democracy—the Arab Spring was going on—that the internet was going to bring full transparency to American elections, and so that was going to be the magic bullet. And, you know, at the time I was in the Obama administration. We were really taken with the idea of internet freedom. But it seems that since then the openness of the internet, which we had hoped would solve a lot of political problems, which would undermine authoritarian governments, is almost being used to undermine democracy by some authoritarian governments. And I wonder if you could give us a little bit of history about information operations, what is it that we’ve been missing, and what do we need to be paying more attention to.

RID: Yeah. So thank you. I’m happy to try to provide some history. I’m writing a book on the history of disinformation right now, so please stop me if I start to skip into too much detail there. (Laughter.)

But disinformation—or active measures, to use the old Soviet term of art which emerged in the early ’60s—is, of course, a very old phenomenon. And if we go look at the Cold War, we literally have hundreds, more likely thousands, of examples of small individual active measures and disinformation operations.

I interviewed a few people who actually worked in active measures for their entire career. As you may be able to hear in my funny accent, I’m German. So I recently interviewed some Stasi—a former Stasi disinformation operator, which was an extraordinary experience. And from one of them I have this—got this great line that they think that—they thought the best mix between truth—of truth and fact, of fact and forgery, of truth and lie is 80/20—80 percent true, 20 percent false—because that makes it really hard for journalists or for experts like us to tell what’s actually true, what’s factual, and what’s not factual.

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