Charles Harry, director of the Center for Governance of Technology and Systems (GoTech), participated in the UMDemocracy 2022 talk series organized by the UMD Alumni Association and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism to discuss national security and democracy ahead of the midterm elections. Dana Priest, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter, served as moderator for the event that featured a panel of experts in cyber, information, and national security.
Throughout the talk, participants discussed a several types of internet activities that can impact public discourse and, by extension, elections. Topics ranged from Russian influence operations to the regulation of major social media platforms.
“There’s a mix of technical security challenges as well as this issue of freedom of speech. Who owns that data? Who gets to regulate that data?” said Professor Harry in response to a question about social media content regulation. “Just when you think you have a governance regime in place in, let’s say, the United States or Western Europe, you have to understand that that data might be stored in Indonesia, or might be traversing infrastructure in a totally different part of the world.”
Professor Harry also spotlighted the possibility that, if American-based platforms are overburdened with regulation, they could fall into decline and lose their market share to platforms based in autocratic countries, creating new sets of challenges.
Dr. Steve Sin, director of the Unconventional Weapons and Technology division at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), discussed Russian influence operations aimed at the 2022 midterms, and why the operations aren’t as energetic as those directed at some previous election cycles.
“They don’t have to create new narratives. They just amplify what they think is working,” said Dr. Sin. “That is part of information operations tactics. You sow the seeds and see what sticks.”
William Braniff, director of START, also participated in the talk, as did Harvey Rishikof, director of Cyber Security at the Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security (ARLIS) at UMD. All the talk’s participants agreed that the legal and technical challenges surrounding the regulation of online speech are complex.
“I do wonder if the real solution is us,” said Professor Harry. “Being able to, individually, be better at engaging with our fellow citizens in a much more constructive way, and really kind of unplugging from this sewer of disinformation that we’re getting from domestic media platforms as well as foreign actors.”