The Call is Coming from Inside the House

November 7, 2021

“Present day social media is not compatible with the politics of representative democracy.”
Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group, tweeted that stark statement earlier this week. It’s unclear exactly what he was referring to, but the fact that there are numerous possible candidates for his motivation is disturbing in and of itself.

I focus my work here at USC’s Election Cybersecurity Initiative on threats to elections overseas and on foreign threats to our elections here at home. A huge portion of that analysis involves looking at how foreign adversaries use social media to spread malicious disinformation with the goals of meddling in our political system, causing societal disruption, and sowing doubt about the integrity of our votes. There are ample examples of countries such as Russia undertaking well-organized, coordinated campaigns on social media where they create fake accounts to push false narratives in service of their goals. We’ve seen this happen time after time again.

To be clear, foreign-based hacking attacks on political figures and organizations remain a very challenging and different problem. This is exactly what happened to Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, and to the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Those emails were selectively released, timed to inflict maximum damage on Clinton and to help Donald Trump, Moscow’s preferred candidate.

And in the recent German elections, we did indeed see new examples of phishing attacks being undertaken on politicians, which almost certainly emanated from Russia. There was a lot of concern in the days and weeks leading up to the elections that hacked emails would be leaked with the goal of hurting certain political parties. But interestingly that never happened. While observers waited nervously to take stock of the damage these hackers caused, the releases never materialized. Despite that fact, the threat of such leaks itself put voters on edge and cast a shadow over election season. That’s not a healthy situation, either.

However real and dangerous this interference from Russia and China may be, I think it’s time to recognize that, when it comes to social media disinformation, our foreign adversaries may have lit the fire and laid the groundwork, but they are no longer the threat that’s burning the hottest. To use a famous horror movie line suitable for this Halloween season, “The call is coming from inside the house.”

This phrase is used to refer to a threat you thought was primarily external but which turns out to be right under your nose, or “coming from inside the house” instead. For our purposes, while foreign adversarial social media campaigns are certainly still a problem, it seems to me that now that they’ve helped set our political systems aflame, Americans are picking up the ball and running with it all on their own.
Countries like Russia continue to push election, COVID, and other disinformation, but plenty of American media organizations and activists online — not to mention average Americans who repost them — are quite simply doing much of the legwork.

For example, consider climate change: a new study by a nonprofit organization found that almost 70 percent of online climate change denial is coming from only ten publishers — nine of which are based in the United States and one in Russia. This group, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, looked at a variety of disinformation related to climate change issues, including “articles that undermine the existence or impacts of climate change or misrepresent data in ways that might erode trust in climate science experts,” according to the Washington Post.

The nonprofit team found that, of the Facebook posts they identified as containing misinformation, only eight percent had one of the platform’s informational labels attached to it — the same kind of labels the social media company has committed to applying to election and COVID misinformation. While Facebook disputed these findings, it is clear that misinformation is running rampant and proliferating from users within our own borders.

I think it’s time to consider the reality that, while we have to keep fighting the foreign threats to our elections and our country (especially cyber hacks and other attacks), we’re burning down our house all on our own. Ian Bremmer’s warning may be harsh, but with every passing day, it becomes more true.

Marie Harf
International Elections Analyst, USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative

Marie Harf is a strategist who has focused her career on promoting American foreign policy to domestic audiences. She has held senior positions at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, worked on political campaigns for President Barack Obama and Congressman Seth Moulton, and served as a cable news commentator. Marie has also been an Instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.