On Jan. 6, 2017, the United States intelligence community released a report documenting Russia’s interference in our elections. One of us, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, was a senior U.S. intelligence officer working on Russia at the time. Although the intelligence community could not disclose the array of evidence underpinning the assessment, the judgments were robust and clear: Russia interfered in our election to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process and to help President Trump’s electoral prospects.
Even today, Russian efforts to meddle in our democracy have not abated.
Our public discussions about Russian interference are often conducted in broad terms: Russian actors use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to spread messages that reach millions of U.S. citizens. While true, these overarching statements mask the targeted and tailored tactics that Russia employs. Russian actors have demonstrated a nuanced understanding of our political system (by targeting select electoral districts), and of the grievances plaguing specific communities. Russian narratives identify and amplify divisive issues to polarize our society and undermine faith in our democracy.
Idaho has not been immune.
On March 10, 2015, American Falls became an early testing ground for Russian disinformation. That day, Twitter accounts reported that a phosphorous leak poisoned the water supply in American Falls. Soon after, more news outlets picked up the story. Photos of people wearing biohazard suits began to circulate. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality identified the story as fake, and officials tried to reassure people that their water was safe. That was no simple task. In fact, research indicates that false stories spread six times faster than true ones.
Americans are rightly concerned about foreign attempts to manipulate our information environment. We worry, however, that we are too focused on foreign influence efforts and not focused enough on resolving the political polarization that foreign actors exploit. In other words, we view foreign meddling as a symptom of a deeper problem. It is easier to blame our current ills on hostile foreign actors than to roll up our sleeves and work together to make our democracy more resilient to unwanted influence from the likes of Russia and China.
Our efforts to deter malign foreign actors must start at home through actions to strengthen the resiliency of our democracy. Protecting our electoral infrastructure and improving campaign finance transparency are critical components of an effective response. But so, too, are civil conversations that cut across socioeconomic, generational and geographic divides.
That is why our small bipartisan organization, the Center for a New American Security, is coming from Washington, D.C., to Boise. We have embarked on a project that brings U.S. foreign policy analysts and European officials to 12 cities across the United States. The project is called “Across the Pond, In the Field.” The goal is simple: to foster a genuine exchange of ideas that will allow the residents and leaders of those 12 cities to ask the hard questions and challenge longstanding, core assumptions.
Disagreements and fissures in American society are not new. But partisanship and polarization have intensified. We are coming to Boise to foster connections and dialogues between Americans in the hope that, over time, we can help break down the divides that trouble our society and that foreign actors seek to exploit. We hope you will join the discussion.