Social media and political warfare
Watch the UVA Democracy Biennial
The Biennial was originally broadcast September 24-25, 2021
About this video
May 22, 2019
Eric Edelman, Laura Rosenberger, Michael Shure, Aynne Kokas (moderator)
By Anna Katherine Clay
A captivated, standing-room-only audience reacted audibly when i24NEWS senior national correspondent—and UVA alumnus—Michael Shure shared a prescient story about President Trump and his favorite social medium.
Shure had gone to Las Vegas to cover a 2012 Mitt Romney campaign rally, where now-President Trump was scheduled to deliver an endorsement. Shure asked the future president why his endorsement mattered?
“I have a lot of followers on Twitter—and they matter,” Trump told Shure.
Shure wasn’t convinced, so he asked Romney the same question.
“Have you seen how many followers he has on Twitter?” Romney said of Trump.
“Trump used [Twitter] to his great advantage then, and he continues do to so, though maybe there’s an expiration date on his effect,” Shure said to the audience.
Social media was only one part of a broader discussion of the digital media landscape. Tackling the topic with Shure were fellow panelists Eric Edelman, a former ambassador and foreign policy veteran who is also senior fellow at the Miller Center, and Laura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy who, with years of foreign policy experience herself, had testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee just the day before.
Moderator Aynne Kokas, an assistant professor of Media Studies and senior fellow at the Miller Center, began by exploring how social media has become weaponized.
Having recently completed a year’s worth of work as the chairman of the national defense strategy commission, Edelman focused immediately on the national security implications: “Those strategy documents say that the United States is in a long-term strategic competition with Russia and China,” Edelman said. “But one finding that we had, which is not something commonly recognized by folks in the public, is that in the space between peace and war, which in some sense defines what we are talking about here today—political warfare—we are not in competition with Russia and China, we are in conflict with them—every day."
Edelman detailed how both our society and systems are “under attack” from Russian and China state-sponsored entities seeking to create problems for our democracy, influence our elections and sow social discord.
Rosenberger cited numerous examples, from the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. President election and the European Parliamentary elections to smaller, nuanced targeting through domestic networks and smaller platforms like sub-Reddits, 8chan, and the like.
“I’m stealing a line from a colleague of mine that I’ve now stolen many times, because I think it puts it really well,” Rosenberger said. “For our adversaries that are attacking our democracy using tools like social media, elections aren’t a beginning point or an endpoint, they’re a flashpoint. It’s a moment for our competitors or adversaries to make particular gains in this long-term conflict with us that they are engaging in in the information space. . . . The Russians are trying to weaken us, and there’s a number of different ways of doing that, and it’s not just by getting certain people elected. It’s by sowing chaos, increasing polarization, hyping divisions, and really trying to turn Americans against one another.”
Shure shared what he had learned while talking with a wide swath of Americans throughout different regions of the country. A soybean farmer in Iowa, for example, felt pressured via Facebook to support the president’s tariff policies, even though he didn’t necessarily agree—and didn’t have anywhere to sell his crops. “I was struck by the fact that if soybean farmers in Iowa, who spend far less time on this stuff [i.e. social media] than I do, are feeling the effects," Shure said. "In politics and in the issues of these campaigns, you feel it happening from the very bottom to the very top."
“We haven’t updated legal frameworks and policy structures to deal with modern communications, and there are huge vulnerabilities,” Rosenberger argued, pointing out how anyone can say anything to be “deliberately manipulative” without serious legal repercussion.
Looking ahead, Edelman believes the Russians will make a generalized attacked on “the legitimacy of the  election as a whole.” Rosenberger agreed, emphasizing the need for secure elections and additional funding, particularly at the state and local level, to ensure them.
Ultimately, whether it was elections, internationally or domestically, policy debates, or organized resistance groups, the panelists emphasized that dangerous network propaganda has proliferated around the world. And if we don’t act soon, at the national, state, and local level, through both government regulations and private technology initiatives, it may be too late.
“Whether it’s other nation states, whether it’s domestic actors, whether it’s trolls-for-hire, this is a toolkit that is proliferating, and it is very low cost," concluded Rosenberger. Because any actor not particularly motivated by democratic outcomes can pick this up and run with it. And that is going to have an extremely deleterious effect on democracy around the world, if we don’t get our hands on this really, really quickly.”
Key quotes from this session
In the space between peace and war, which in some sense is what defines what we are talking about here today, political warfare, we aren’t in competition with Russia and China, we are in conflict with them every day. And our systems, our society, are under attack by both Russian and Chinese state entities—state-sponsored at least—that are seeking, as Dan Bartlett said at the end of the last session this morning, to sow social discord in the United States and to influence the U.S. elections and create problems for democracy. —Eric Edelman
There is no doubt that social media and cyber tools have become a new domain of warfare. —Eric Edelman
It’s almost important that we all recall that each and every one of you in this room are all on the front lines. You are all being targeted by this, and even those who are not on social media are still being influenced by it. —Laura Rosenberger
Because we haven’t updated some of our legal frameworks and policy structures to deal with the modern set of communications, there are these huge vulnerabilities where anybody can get out there and just pollute the conversation with things that are deliberately manipulative and really, I believe, deleterious to democratic debate. . . . The ability to have a shared set of facts is becoming completely eroded. —Laura Rosenberger
It’s very different when you talk to people, and it’s not just anecdotal about this issue, because they’re not talking about Russia, the ones that I’ve spoken to, they’re saying they took advantage of us because you know what, we have, our voting rights act is in tatters and we don’t have paper ballots, and these people who try to take advantage of what we do here in a sophisticated way are doing it because in a grassroots way, we’re a mess, we’re so easily taken advantage of, and that’s what a lot of American voters have said to me. —Michael Shure