• Pell Center Study Warns Russia Threat is Bigger than the 2016 Election

    Newport, RI – Vladimir Putin’s Russia is engaged in a well-financed and determined campaign to undermine democratic political and social institutions as well as international alliances, and to remove resistance to Russia’s foreign policy objectives. Russia has the motive and the means to do so, according to a new report from the Pell Center at Salve Regina University.

    Cover of "Shatter the House of Mirrors"“Shatter the House of Mirrors” is based on the proceedings of a closed conference held at the Pell Center on the campus of Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, in June of 2017, drawing together 36 researchers, technologists, scholars, journalists, and policy experts from North America, Europe, and Australia.  The invitation-only conference operated under Chatham House Rule, so participants and their affiliation may not be identified.  The report was authored by the only two public participants in the conference: Dr. James M. Ludes of the Pell Center at Salve Regina University and Dr. Mark R. Jacobson of Georgetown University.

    The report recommends broadening the public focus beyond possible crimes committed by President Donald Trump and his staff during the 2016 campaign.  “The Russian effort is larger than the election of a president,” wrote Ludes and Jacobson. “It seeks to sow division within the United States and within the broader community of western democracies. While crimes need to be prosecuted if they occurred, the public should be sensitized and their attention reoriented to combat the broader Russian effort to weaken our faith in our free institutions, and undermine the political cohesion of the United States.”

    The conference produced several specific recommendations:

    • Improve transparency and raise public awareness of the threat. Specifically, the Pell Center authors call for the appointment of an independent bipartisan commission to establish a widely-accepted understanding of Russia’s actions, means, and objectives in the 2016 U.S. election. Specifically, the study highlights the need for a public accounting of irregular social media activity in battleground states prior to the 2016 election as well as on-going social media efforts to sow division in the United States.  Ludes and Jacobson also call on the news media to review, and if necessary revise, their standards and practices so that they don’t become unwitting vehicles for foreign propaganda.  Social media platforms, themselves, must be regulated and held to federal standards of transparency when it comes to political advertising.  Finally, the study recommends public and private investment in the investigations and reporting needed to educate the American public about a threat that has not waned.
    • Prepare the executive branch for a new cold war. Organizations from the White House to the intelligence community need to be reviewed for their efficacy in meeting the propaganda challenge to the West, according to Ludes and Jacobson. The White House must communicate to Con­gress the need for any new authorizations to meet this threat. It must also request suf­ficient appropriations for these activities and prosecute these programs vigorously. The authors called on the Trump administration, as well, to provide the diplomatic leadership required for an international response to the common challenge posed by Russian intervention in the democratic processes of the West.
    • Congress must lead. Ludes and Jacobson argue that in the absence of clear executive branch willingness or readiness to lead on this issue, the U.S. Congress must take the initiative. It can do so by elimi­nating “dark-money” in American politics; requiring more transparency by corporations operating in the United States; embracing bipartisanship in the defense of American democracy; and reforming the laws governing the activities of foreign agents operating in the United States—to begin by considering legislative changes that would require state-sponsored media outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, to publicly reveal their sources of funding.
    • Invest in the American people. Finally, the authors of the Pell Center conference report urged the public to once again consider education a national pri­ority and the cornerstone for an effective defense of democracy. Russia, they argue, “exploited Amer­ica’s media illiteracy, our civic illiteracy, and our historical illiteracy.” The Pell Center study calls for increased funding for programs to increase the public’s resistance to influence by foreign powers.

    “Shatter the House of Mirrors” is available for download here.

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