The Former Hillary Clinton Advisor Tracking Russian Bots and Trolls

After it was confirmed that Russia influenced our 2016 presidential election, foreign policy expert Laura Rosenberger set out on a mission to preserve democracy.

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Jan 3 2018, 5:19pm

Photo courtesy of Laura Rosenberger

U.S. foreign policy expert Laura Rosenberger is the Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is part of the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC. She also served as foreign policy advisor for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.

Last year, as a direct response to confirmation that Russia influenced our 2016 election, Rosenberger and her team developed the Hamilton 68 Dashboard, a computer application that tracks 600 Kremlin-linked Twitter accounts to find patterns, trends, and processes of bots and trolls from overseas. It’s a step that has helped us understand Russian tactics and goals and explore social media interference by foreign powers.

BROADLY: How did you first become interested in politics and foreign policy?
LAURA ROSENBERGER:

I was always interested in public policy and I was politically engaged from the time I was young. In college, I was interested in both domestic policy and foreign policy, and felt divided about which way to go. But I was a senior in college on 9/11 and that made up my mind that foreign policy was the way I needed to go. I wanted to help make sure that something like that never happened again. That’s not in a strictly terrorism sense, but in the broader sense of making a more safe and secure world.

Politics are a personal thing for me. My time on Hillary [Clinton]’s campaign was a shift, because I had never mixed the two. She was a former Secretary of State and cared very deeply about the issues that were important to me.

How did working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign affect you and your work?
It was a huge learning experience for me. I’d never worked on a political campaign—I had only spent time working on foreign policy from the government perspective. I realized that I hadn’t been thinking about how we talk about these issues to the American people. There are concepts that we take for granted in the foreign policy world that we’ve neglected to talk to the American people about, like the importance of alliances, for example. We need to be doing a lot more of that.

Working on the campaign, we had some of the smartest people in the world. I also had the opportunity to work with Secretary Clinton and see her dedication to foreign policy issues. She was so engaged with every detail of policy proposals—It’s why I wanted to work for her.

It was definitely the most intense job I’ve ever had, especially being at the epicenter of what became clear to us in the summer of 2016 was an attack on our democracy by a foreign power. That was a jolt in a similar way that 9/11 was an attack on us. It was a threat we didn’t see coming, and that made us realize how vulnerable we are.

Tell us about the Hamilton 68 Dashboard.

The dashboard came to be as part of a broader project that I launched with a colleague, Jamie Fly, who was Marco Rubio’s foreign policy advisor. We teamed up as a bipartisan pair because this is not a partisan issue and we need to work across the aisle.

We launched this program to look at threats to our democracy by foreign powers and to learn how to combat them. Early on, we knew we had to demonstrate that the efforts of Russian intelligence had not ended with the election and that’s an ongoing effort. Our view is that the best way to deal with that is to expose that messaging and inform people—to shine sunlight and create transparency.

So, the dashboard tracks accounts on Twitter and shows in real time the messages that these networks are pushing. We see that they do a couple of different things, but the most common thing that they do is try to amplify and push content that is divisive. They try to pit Americans against one another and pull people to extremes. They weigh in on wedge issues to drive up anger and sow chaos and division. They weigh in on politics a good bit, but other topics they touch on are race, gender, and immigration.

One other thing we clearly see is that this is not a partisan effort. In the context of the interference in the election, these operations were geared in the support of one candidate, but the broader point is about how they will support whatever they need to in order to achieve the goal of attacking our democracy.

How has the dashboard helped us so far?
We do a lot of work with journalists to try to better inform their reporting. Journalists watch the dashboard, see what stories are trending, and think about why they might be promoting this particular story. They can incorporate this knowledge into their reporting.

We also do a lot of work with policy makers to make sure they are informed when we see particular attacks.

Basically, we want to make sure that we can alert people to the fact that that’s happening. One way we can reduce the effectiveness of misinformation is pointing it out very quickly to short circuit its ability to take hold. We are also putting that information together with information about other efforts that are being used to undermine our democracy, like cyber attacks, and money laundering. We’re doing other research to try to connect dots. It’s easy to look at these issues in individual slices, but we want to see the big picture.

Finally, we’re engaging a lot with social media platforms about what we’re seeing and how we think we could address the misuse of those platforms. My own view is that social media platforms can be forces for a lot of good, and for the furtherance of democracy in some countries, but we’re seeing our open and free society being weaponized and turned against us. It’s really important that we preserve the strength of these platforms while minimizing the risks.

Is there anything that normal citizens could be doing to help your efforts?
I think there’s absolutely a lot that people can do. The first thing is that it’s really important to be informed about where the information that you are reading is coming from. This means checking sources and thinking about the potential motivation of the different authors and outlets. Particularly in a moment where emotions are very high about a lot of issues, it can be pretty easy to just see something that is in line with our personal biases and run with it without checking whether or not it is a legitimate story or source.

Another thing that you can do is hard given our challenges. So many of the Russians interference efforts are about exploiting vulnerabilities in our society. They aren’t creating them, they’re exploiting them. So, doing the hard work of coming together, reaching across political, religious, and racial divides—all of these areas where the Russians are trying to turn us against each other. They try to find a seam in the rock and blow it into a cavern. The more we can strengthen ourselves from within, the better.

We’ve come to take our democracy for granted over time, and it’s easy to forget how much it is core to our daily lives and daily being. But really understanding that threats to democracy really threaten our way of life is vital, as is remembering that our democracy is worth defending.

Why is a nonpartisan approach to these issues so important?
What we are seeing is that so much of the strategy of those attacking us is to divide us. Therefore, I think a partisan response plays right into the hands of those trying to do us harm. Responding in a bipartisan way is essential to any affective response.

Our democracy allows us to have disagreements. To me, preserving those institutions and those freedoms that allow those disagreements is critical and essential. I wants to be [able] to disagree with my republican colleagues, and that means identifying that some issues are transcendent, like our democratic institutions, so we can continue to have a robust debate.

We are in extremely polarized times, and at moments, it feels can be difficult to be working on a bipartisan basis. But it feels really good to be identifying with people who I disagree with [on] a lot of things, and to know that we have strong agreement on issues that are really important. It’s a good sign for our country that we can come together.

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What are your goals for 2018?
We launched this program in July, and we’ve grown a good bit since then. It’s an enormous challenge and there’s so much work to be done. We will continue to grow our team to better address this really important set of issues, and I feel good about that.

On the other hand, it sometimes feels like the challenge is overwhelming. Unfortunately, so far, we have not seen the effort by our government to actually begin to take this threat seriously and push back. My own personal philosophy is that I’m going to do everything I can and go down swinging, even if it’s a losing fight. But I don’t think this is. I think we can begin to push back on these threats if we can take them seriously. I truly believe in our democracy as a system that is enduring and one that has safety nets built into it. But fighting back requires a level of commitment that we haven't seen from the government yet.

We know that these tactics are going to evolve by those who seek to do harm. We have to ensure that we can get ahead of the threat in a way that strengthens our democracy.