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Politics & Government

New Report Argues That Russian Cyber Meddling Is An Extension Of Cold War Tactics


Well, if in fact the goal of Russian cyber meddling is to divide Americans, to what end? And does it mark a new Russian policy? Well, a new report argues that what we're seeing now is in fact an extension of Cold War tactics and that the U.S. should treat it as a new chapter in that conflict. Georgetown University professor Mark Jacobson is one of the report's authors. He's also a former adviser to the Defense Department and joins us now. Hi.

MARK JACOBSON: Thanks for having me today.

SIEGEL: Let's say the Russians manage to stimulate more argument among Americans over the national anthem in the NFL. How would Russian policymakers see that as being in their interest?

JACOBSON: What Russian policymakers want to do is undermine confidence in American democracy but not confidence necessarily in the sense of just elections or processes or systems. We have enough debates as is. But what they want to do, again, as was said earlier, is tear apart the fabric of American society. What they want to do is encourage division with the hopes of not just prolonging that division, but they hope that it turns violent. And what this does - it forces the United States to look inside and not concern itself with what's happening across the globe.

SIEGEL: So they're saying that they would want to see the U.S. become a less-credible leader, say, of European attitudes toward Russia right now.

JACOBSON: Absolutely. This is about breaking down the transatlantic alliance. This is about breaking down American power. This is about keeping America focused inward. And frankly it appears to be working to some degree.

SIEGEL: You see it as just a digital update of Soviet-era propaganda and disinformation.

JACOBSON: In some ways I do. I think that's why we're having these debates both in academia and the policymaking world about whether we're in a new Cold War. Is this an extension of the Cold War? What makes this different, however, is the speed with which disinformation and fake news can get around the globe.

I also think the ability to go to individuals - and this is what we're seeing in the Facebook and Twitter cases - the ability of the Russians to target individuals based frankly on some of the marketing data that Facebook has. That's new, and that's particularly scary because what you can see is a potential for this information to overwhelm the capacity of trusted organizations, the media or officials to get the truth out.

SIEGEL: Your report recommends some regulation of the Internet, which I think would mark an about face for what's really been an overwhelmingly unregulated space. If you did regulate, say, social media sites and platforms on the web, couldn't there always be new unregulated platforms that would grow up? Isn't it a Sisyphean task to try to regulate the web?

JACOBSON: Sure. I think that what's important to understand is there's a balance between regulating and then the ability to leverage the strength of the Internet. And that is the freedom of expression you see on there. What we're talking about specifically here has to do with Federal Election Commission issues, campaign finance. We want the social media platforms to show the same sort of transparency that you would, for example, on public radio or on a commercial broadcast network. Identify the sources of funding when it comes to political advertisement. And then frankly no matter what's said, let the listener decide whether they believe it or agree with it or not.

SIEGEL: Your proposals for regulating political advertising - first, they may in fact go beyond what the Supreme Court has ruled in this country for broadcast. But that wouldn't cover hashtags about pro football players taking a knee or standing up during the national anthem. You're saying the - this operation against American opinion is happening all the time, not just about elections.

JACOBSON: Regulation can only do so much. We think even more important than trying to regulate the type of speech during a political campaign is the transparency in terms of calling out fake news when it's seen. And that can be the job of every legitimate Twitter follower in the U.S. You know, there's nothing wrong with having a debate over an issue, but it's going to be incredibly important for individuals and for professional news organizations to also call out and promote and say, look; this story that's coming up about vaccines, this story that's coming up about black lives matter - this is just not correct. This is not true. It's fake.

SIEGEL: You say Congress has to step up here. Do you think Congress realizes that?

JACOBSON: I think they do now. I think that there has been a growing realization that what happened during the election was just one prong of an attack against the United States. And I think we will see, especially once the investigations are completed, a window of opportunity for Congress to pass the type of legislation we think's required but also to support, more broadly, media literacy and civic literacy in our educational system, which frankly is the ultimate defense against this type of disinformation.

SIEGEL: Professor Jacobson, thanks for talking with us.

JACOBSON: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Mark Jacobson is co-author of "Shatter The House Of Mirrors." It's a new report on Russian influence operations by the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.