Fiona Hill Keynotes Discussion on Disinformation and Foreign-Influence Campaigns

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Fiona Hill

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University hosted a powerhouse panel of renowned experts to discuss the complexities of foreign influence on our elections and democracy.

“When social media was created, we weren’t thinking of our own fragility as a country and how these tools could be used and abused by external forces to run an influence operation,” said Fiona Hill, a leading expert on Russia and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Before social media, it was much harder to reach a broad audience,” she said, highlighting how age-old disinformation campaigns run by foreign adversaries have changed with new digital tools.

The Zoom webinar on Sep. 23, 2020, featured a keynote by Hill who most recently served as President Trump’s top advisor on Russia, and on the National Security Council from 2017-2019. It was co-moderated by LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts students Veronica Backer-Peral ’22, Matt Lamantia ’23, and Declan Tomlinson ’23, as well as Wayne Limberg, BCLA alumnus and former director at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Hill explained how the Russians are experts at creating fake American online personas to launder misinformation and seize on opportunities. Alex Stamos, a cybersecurity researcher at Stanford and former chief security officer at Facebook, discussed a new Russian operation where its Internet Research Agency created a new site, Peace Data, to leverage American journalists to produce content that was aligned with their goals. Ellen Nakashima, a national security reporter for The Washington Post who reported on the Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee networks in 2016, pointed out that media focused too heavily on the content of those emails rather than the fact that Russia stole those emails and leaked them in an attempt to help a candidate win.

While the Russians are doing a lot of meddling in U.S. politics, all of the panelists argued that they are not inventing any of our political divisions. “Those are all ours,” said Hill. According to Stamos, most of the disinformation coming out of the 2020 election is being created and shared domestically. Foreign actors, such as Russia, are only taking these messages and amplifying them. “This raises a lot of difficult questions regarding what is truth, what is legitimate political debate, and who makes this decision,” said Stamos.

Panelist Bilyana Lilly of the Rand Corporation helped participants understand the very different motives behind Russian and Chinese election interference. “Russia aims to erode trust in democracy, while China aims to align political outcomes to strategic objectives,” said Lily.

Hill emphasized that despite our concern about persistent outside threats, we should have confidence in the integrity of our election system. She outlined the collective efforts by state and local governments and the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen election security and also pointed to our decentralized voting system as a huge advantage in this effort.

The panelists stressed that all citizens all have a role in restoring our faith in democracy. Hill suggested several ways Americans can negate the impact of foreign influence. First and foremost, we must come together as a country to fix the divides that Russians are exploiting, she said. We must also push back on the Russians with direct and clear messaging, continue to improve our electronic systems, and be much more critical of the information we receive and share.

Nakashima said, “The biggest vulnerabilities we have in America today are the lack of societal cohesion and respect for pluralism, a diminution of trust in the mainstream media and in government, a lack of transparency in some respects by the government, and a shattering of democratic norms.” She added, “These deficits make us vulnerable to Russian influence and domestic misinformation, and we can only prosper as a nation if we close these divides.”

To view the complete event recording, click here.

This event was presented by LMU’s Global Policy Institute in conjunction with the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, College of Business Administration, School of Film and Television, Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering, History Department, Political Science and International Relations Department, International Relations Program, and Journalism Program.