Addressing the Spread of Disinformation
Ann Johnson: Today I am joined by Dr. Fiona Hill, one of the United States' most preeminent Russia experts, a Harvard-educated former intelligence officer who covered Russia and Eurasia under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and former deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council under President Trump. Dr. Hill is currently the Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institute. She is also a preeminent author, researcher and expert, having published extensively on issues related to Russia, Central Asia, regional conflicts, energy and strategic issues, including the use of disinformation campaigns.
Ann Johnson: Her latest book is a memoir titled "There Is Nothing Here For You: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century." The spread of disinformation and the proliferation of doctored narratives that are spread by humans and bots online are challenging publishers and platforms. They use manipulated, miscontextualized, misappropriated information, deepfakes and what many in the cybersecurity industry would consider cognitive hacking - increasingly a part of the cyberattack delivery methods as well. In 2019, during her testimony in front of the House Intelligence Committee hearing, Dr. Hill ardently warned committee members about Russia's security services goal to spreading disinformation. It is one of the topics we are going to deep dive into today.
Ann Johnson: Welcome to "Afternoon Cyber Tea," Dr. Fiona Hill.
Fiona Hill: Thank you so much, Ann. Really nice to be here.
Ann Johnson: So I'm thrilled to have you here. And when we think about cyber-adversaries - 'cause we're very focused on cybersecurity - we think about adversaries like China or Russia that are now mastering technology and disinformation campaigns to undermine U.S. interests at home and abroad, including the erosion of faith in our own elections. These same adversaries are making vital investments in artificial intelligence and in machine-learning initiatives for processing and analyzing large quantities of data. What do you believe is required from us to stay aware of our adversaries and to know precisely the scientific and technical capabilities they are pursuing?
Fiona Hill: Well, I think you've touched on the question, Ann, on exactly the nature of the challenge here. It's how to stay aware of what they're doing and also the technological capabilities that they've developed. And that, of course, is actually a pretty high bar and a high task because we can only be really aware if we, you know, first off understand how they are, basically, penetrating our systems.
Fiona Hill: So there's the actual security part of this, where companies like Microsoft and others are really on the front lines of seeing intrusions into our various systems. And then, you know, there's this larger public awareness, which is extremely difficult to manage, to be frank, because we're also in a general atmosphere in the United States and our own domestic arena where misinformation and disinformation have become part of our politics.
Fiona Hill: And it's not just over the last three, four, five or so years; it's been increasingly over time. It's with the development of social media and the way that people have divided off into affinity groups. And, you know, they're kind of, basically, posting and reposting and passing on information among themselves, things that they kind of find attractive, without perhaps the awareness of how that might be exploited from the outside.
Fiona Hill: And it's also the way in which our political parties and political campaigns and political candidates have started to approach their job. Politics has always been a dirty business, but in fact, the advent of social media and all these technological means mean that it can be an even dirtier business than before because many of the same techniques that we've seen the Chinese, the Russians, the North Koreans, Iranians - I mean, you name it - using, techniques that have been applied by some within our own domestic political system.
Fiona Hill: You know, we're equally worried about the deepfake videos being made by a campaign operative of a political party here in the United States as we are by it being somebody sitting in, say, an agency close to the Kremlin in Moscow or, more likely, in St. Petersburg, where a lot of these activities have been outsourced to, right? You know, so St. Petersburg, Russia, and Petersburg, Fla., may be both kind of areas where we may see some disinformation emanating out from. And this is the challenge for us because we have to then figure out how we disaggregate what's happening on the domestic side of things and what's happening on the international front and how our adversaries are also taking advantage of our domestic, political and social environments.
Ann Johnson: Can you define for me and for the audience the difference between disinformation and misinformation?
Fiona Hill: I often think about this as the kind of old wives' tales or your kind of - you know, your grandmother's little sayings, as opposed to, you know, somebody trying to deliberately use information for political or personal or monetary purposes, for example. So, you know, I'm sure that many people might think back to their, you know, grandmother or some, you know, older relative saying something to me - something along the lines of, if you go outside - my grandmother used to say this to me. If you go outside with wet hair, you're going to catch a cold. Well, we all know that that's misinformation. But, you know, it gets kind of perpetuated as a kind of - an idea. I mean, I still today feel like I have to go and blow-dry my hair if I go outside because I keep remembering Grandma telling me that I would get a head cold if I went out with my hair wet.
Fiona Hill: That's very different from something like disinformation, which, you know, if we think about it in the most extreme cases of public health that we're dealing with now, in terms of the COVID vaccines, for example, the kind of information that people want to stop people from having vaccines spread are basically engaging in. It might have started off as some misinformation. But then it becomes weaponized in a way or used for larger purposes and then is deliberately deployed not in a well-meaning fashion. And that is when it then becomes disinformation.
Ann Johnson: I was recently - and I don't know how. I ended up on a mailing list. And I'm not going to say the publication. But it was a publication I've never heard of, by the way, not a mainstream or even a well-known publication. But I received an email with their newsletter. And every single bit of information in there was just not - was fake. And I was shocked...
Fiona Hill: Right.
Ann Johnson: ...At how deep - and then I looked them up. And I was shocked at how wide and broad their reach is, how many people actually receive this newsletter. And I realized that, you know, we as a country, even as a global community, have a real challenge ahead of us because people are receiving this type of information scale. And they're not - they're just taking it at face value when they're - because it looks like it's coming from a reputable agency or a reputable source.
Ann Johnson: I'll reflect on one other thing before we move back to the main topic of cybersecurity and information and disinformation. But I was reflecting on a picture that my niece put on Facebook. And it was a picture - and I'm not going to be too specific because I don't want to get political here. But it was basically two people from the opposing parties in the U.S. And it was obvious the picture had been doctored to show the person that, you know, my niece supports is in a very favorable light, and the other person in a very unfavorable light. And I asked her - I said, can you see where this picture has been doctored? - because just by the naked eye, I looked at it and said, oh, yes, this is not a good - you know, an accurate picture. And because it reinforced her worldview, she wasn't even willing to look...
Fiona Hill: Right.
Ann Johnson: ...At the critical thinking behind it...
Fiona Hill: Yep.
Ann Johnson: ...Because it reinforced her view. And that's the kind of environment we are in right now. So all that being said was leading up to a question. What do you think - you know, as far as really getting people out of this polarized worldview that they're living in and only reading things in a bubble that reinforce their worldview, what do you think it's going to take, or what are some practical steps?
Fiona Hill: It's going to take an enormous amount of effort. In a way, it's like a large-scale literacy campaign, because as you were speaking - you know, of course, I'm someone who's studied Russian and Soviet history for a long time. And if you go back to the 19th century, the times of the Russian Empire - so even before the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Union was started - the game that we now call Telephone of where you pass on something to the person sitting next to you and see what it sounds like by the time you get around the circle, a children's game, that used to be called Chinese Whispers or Russian Scandal back in the early - you know, the 19th and 20th century. And it's because, at the time, the Russian Empire and also the Chinese Empire of the time, that was kind of what they did. They spread rumors and disinformation as - basically as part of their statecraft and their competition with other empires. And it was also well-known that they did this. So this is an old technique of disinformation.
Fiona Hill: But also, in pre-literary times, or pre - the times when literacy was much less than it obviously is now, where, you know, a tiny fraction of a population were literate, the way that politics was oriented was also around rumor and innuendo and people passing information verbally. You know, there'd be the famous - you know, here in the United States - context of pamphlets set off in coffee houses, you know, the stuff of Hamilton and the whole - the stories about how people would whip up crowds and whip up mobs on the basis of some salacious details about various opposing politicians. And people didn't read enough to hear anything different. They would just hear all of these stories and rumors that went around.
Fiona Hill: And in the Russian case, there were numerous peasant revolts in parts of even the revolutions that were sparked off by all of these rumors because people couldn't fact-check. And they couldn't counter the information that was being spread around. And it was as people became more literate and learned to read and literacy levels went up that we started to see some of this change and move. There were some antidotes to this original problem.
Fiona Hill: However, now in this digital world with so much information out there, it's almost like we've gone back to these pre-literate periods. We've got so much information, we don't know what to believe. And you put your finger on it - what is the reliable source? What trust do we have in the information that we're having? I still go and blow dry my hair because my grandmother (laughter), who I did trust and have a lot of confidence in, told me I'd get a head cold if I went out with it. It was actually misinformation. If I'm in an affinity group, the people in this affinity group are the people that I'm going to trust. And, you know, my friends send me various things. And, you know, you're likely more to believe them than you are, you know, the things that you're reading in the papers because we've lost our connections with them.
Fiona Hill: So there's going to be - have to be multilayers to this. There's no one solution. It's getting back our literacy equivalent, so basically, people knowing how to read information. It's trying to reestablish trusted sources. A lot of this might be the revitalization of local media, for example, because about 7,000 newspapers, local newspapers, in the United States in the last 10, 15 years have gone out of business because they can't compete on the internet because of loss of revenues from advertising. So it may be that internet platforms and others may have to subsidize them in some way to give them access so that people can see themselves reflected in this information coming out from a local level.
Fiona Hill: It's going to be in schools. It's going to be in universities. It's going to be in the workplace. And it's going to be through conversations like this. And people have to, you know, start - and this is COVID that's made this a lot worse as well. People can't meet physically. They can't see each other eye to eye, because you have to be able to have that relationship of trust that is built up to be able to refute a lot of this information. And what are the Russians been doing, you know, in their disinformation? - posing as Americans on the internet. So a lot of our adversaries have posed as Americans on the internet and basically just pushing and re-pushing around content that was made by others but is intended to inflame. So, you know, there's another element of trying to get them off, again, to try to find out who it is that's participating in some of these discussions - disclosure, transparency. Again, it's a very complicated issue with no one approach.
Ann Johnson: Yeah. And just to take it to a technology level - look; content moderation is hard.
Fiona Hill: Yeah, very hard.
Ann Johnson: Content moderation at scale is incredibly hard. And I do think that there's a role for public companies to do more in bot mitigation and making sure that accounts at least are really human - right? - that they're not starting there. But it's hard work. With that, if you don't mind, I want to change course and just talk a little bit about diversity and inclusion across a few elements of it.
Ann Johnson: So the first thing is, you know, technology and social media and online presence are posing new and unprecedented challenges to women in marginalized communities. So how do we push for the importance of attention, the importance of funding, strategies that guarantee that these digital threats to women's online engagement and marginalized communities' online engagement - such as disinformation, harassment, bullying - we obviously want women and marginalized communities to be part of the greater community and have a bigger voice. But how do we help them so that they're not checking out because they don't want to be harassed or bullied?
Fiona Hill: Well, some of it is the same as what we've just been talking about, external adversaries trying to sort of exploit our social media platforms and our own domestic cyberspace. You know, in a way, what women are experiencing is very similar to that, in the way that this kind of external adversary is coming in, as you are saying, and attacking, basically hounding them out of this space. I mean, it's extremely acute also. That's pretty much for all kinds of marginalized communities. And the cyberbullying, you know, is very much linked into the trolling that we're also experiencing from bots and from Russian agents and Chinese, you know, et cetera, et cetera. So there's something of the same kind of approach that could be taken to this.
Fiona Hill: Another way might also, again, be trying to sort of emphasize these more physical communities, you know? So there's an awful lot of ways in which the internet can be extremely useful for, you know, real physical affinity groups - not people who just like this thing or that thing, but people in certain communities who are trying to do things for themselves - these sort of dedicated groups that can be, you know, basically set up to give them support and mentorship and help them to find funding. I mean, I think there are ways in which public-private efforts at small scale, not just large scale, can really address many of these issues and then, you know, try to connect them all.
Fiona Hill: But that was, of course, the initial idea of the internet and of its creation before it kind of, in a way, grew to the behemoth that it is today, was to increase communication among groups at the grassroots to enable them to do more together. We have to be able to, in a way, go back to some of those basics.
Fiona Hill: Think about, you know, sports networks for example. I mean, my daughter does a lot of American Athletic Union sports teams. And they have, you know, teams Snapchats, you know, which they - you know, the group organizes themselves. All the local community lists where, you know, people in neighborhoods can get together to do things to, you know, share concerns about neighborhood security or the improvement of their local park or, you know, they want to get a plumber. You know, I mean, all of these kinds of things are actually showing, in a way, the internet and the social platforms at their best.
Fiona Hill: So how can we build on that, you know, while pushing out what is really, again, content curation? How can you block people, you know? How can you identify the people who are not just the bots, but the trolls and the people who are trying to persecute and harm people in the marginalized communities?
Fiona Hill: A lot of this may also, you know, have to be not just public-private but also within the legal system, you know, increasing the penalties for cyberbullying and all of the other forms that this abuse takes. And again, this is where we get into these tricky realms because, you know, our legal system hasn't always kept up with this. And, of course, we don't want to stifle free speech and free expression. But we've got to find ways through the legal system to basically constrain this kind of free-for-all activities that's doing so much harm to people.
Ann Johnson: I completely agree with you. And I think that the last thing you touched on - look; there has to be private company efforts. There has to be public-private partnership. But I do think that increasing the penalties will disincent behavior. And that's one of the best things we can do, at least short-term, right?
Fiona Hill: Right. Exactly. I mean, unfortunately, it seems to be the case that in the United States that unless you can sue someone, they don't stop (laughter), cease and desist, you know, some of the behavior that you've seen. And I remember myself, when I was getting targeted, you know, after my testimony - around that time - you know, somebody said, well, just sue the people (laughter) who are, you know, threatening you. And I thought, well, that doesn't seem very feasible. It seems to be a lot of people out there (laughter) who are sending very nasty commentary my way. But there's got to be, you know, a larger way in which we can deal with this, and I think that there is.
Ann Johnson: Yeah. I think it's also - and I'm a big believer in - of the broadest of interpretations of the First Amendment. And I think that unfortunately puts that national tension in the system about the ability to sue somebody for their online harassment - right? - because what they are - unless it gets to the point where you can actually prove it's threatening. There's a whole lot there, as you know, to legally unpack.
Fiona Hill: Yeah. And it just comes even in the physical realm, too. I mean, as I also discovered that unless you've got do-not-trespass signs, it's probably equivalent in - on the internet as well, which really mirrors physical life, obviously, as - in an artificial way. That unless you have do-not-trespass signs all the way to your house, someone can come right up and to your door. And it's only if they cross the threshold and do you harm that you really can do very much about it.
Fiona Hill: Now, this is, I guess, what we're talking about in our cyber personas as well.
Ann Johnson: It is what we're talking about in our cyber personas because it's very difficult. From a cyber standpoint, you want to get that balance right, but you don't want to do anything that's going to limit freedoms. And that's challenging.
Fiona Hill: Exactly. And this, Ann, actually, just very quickly, is one our adversaries in the cyberworld are also taking advantage of. Because we have so much just domestic predilection for mis- and disinformation, all they have to do is just exploit what we're already doing. And then it becomes extraordinarily difficult to roll them back because of all of the free speech protections. And we have to kind of, basically, figure out how we tackle it on the domestic front simultaneously with actions to, basically, push back the cyber intruders, you know, from external countries.
Ann Johnson: Exactly. And I'm actually doing a body of work right now on the intersection between disinformation and cybersecurity attacks and understanding not just the actors but how those attacks are layered and how they are interrelated. It's a fascinating project that we started over the summer. So...
Fiona Hill: That's good. Well, that's exactly what we need. I mean, that's exactly what we should be doing.
Ann Johnson: Yeah. Then people can understand. OK, back to diversity for a second. The U.S. is a multicultural nation. Look; I - born and raised here, right? The one thing, however, is we don't have that level of diversity and that balance of diversity in all parts of the U.S. And one of the places has been, historically, in our national security ranks. And I fundamentally believe, you know, you need diverse people to solve hard problems. You don't want groupthink. You don't want people that look or sound or have the exact same education backgrounds you do. And I think - 'cause having that limits - right? - our ability to understand and respond to global issues, while it gives our enemies the opportunity to - you know, to foment racial tensions via social media. So could you talk a little about the importance of including individuals with diverse perspectives and the right skills and the right sensitivities to approach the future threats that we're going to be facing? And how do we actually make that more of a reality?
Fiona Hill: Yeah, first of all, we have to start with it at the top in the way that you're discussing and the understanding that we need these diverse perspectives, and they have to come from all kinds of different conceptions of diversity - racial diversity, age. You know, you actually want people to be able to mentor up. I mean, I know that, you know, I often rely on my 14-year-old daughter to tell me, you know, about the latest things in technology because I'm certainly not able to, you know, keep up with things and just - you know, and you need a generational inclusivity here as well from people from different stages in their lives and different age cohorts. It's gender, obviously, transgender.
Fiona Hill: It's geographic and socioeconomic diversity as well because, you know, I think the positive things that we've seen over the last several years here is this sort of conception, for example, that places like Washington, D.C., New York and elsewhere are somehow divided off from the rest of the country and the kind of purview of elites that are cliquish and cut off from the rest of America. This is actually not true at all.
Fiona Hill: But it's also because that we've lost that connectivity. The cyber connectivity isn't giving it to us. It may have increased communications, but it's not giving people that kind of sense of who is who. We need to be out there telling more stories about who the people are in different parts of the country, but to give people a sense that they could be part of that as well through different means. And I think, again, cyber connectivity can really help with that. But first of all, you have to start connecting different groups.
Fiona Hill: So there's a lot of ideas about public service, volunteering, getting people from, you know, Iowa to go, you know, across and, you know, have experiences in New York, people from New York to go to New Mexico, you know, thinking about how we can get people from across the country to have more affinity not just through the internet with people like themselves but with people who are not like themselves, people from rural areas going to urban areas.
Fiona Hill: And a lot of this could start in school. There's a lot of thinking about school exchanges within the United States. We're doing different kinds of schools - rural and urban, private and public, different parts of the country to other parts of the country, universities, and trying to encourage people to go into college, two-year colleges. I mean, this is something the current administration is trying to do - further education, give people all kinds of mentoring and internship opportunities that could be virtual in part, but to kind of, basically, get more people connected to each other, physically as well as virtually. And that, I think, would help a lot of the way to get people to get a sense that they could go and work for a company like Microsoft. They could maybe go and work in the United States government.
Fiona Hill: The United States government is, in fact, extraordinarily diverse. It was the one thing that really struck me when I got into the government was that people were from all kinds of different backgrounds. But the way that they had decided to enter government service was often through the military, by enlisting at a local recruitment center in their hometown. The United States government does a much - the United States military, rather, does a much better job of recruiting than any other part of our system because they've - literally, they've got a recruitment center in every town that you can think of. You know, they might have then retired from the military after 20, you know, 25 years. They still wanted to serve, so then they end up in the civilian part of the government. Or they'd gone on a school trip or had some opportunity to do an internship during their college or further education. Or some of them had come out of the private sector.
Fiona Hill: They were very diverse. But, you know, they weren't that numerous. The number of people who work in the federal government is actually remarkably small. People think it's huge, but it really isn't. I mean, the bulk of people are Postal Service workers and the uniformed military. The actual federal government is very small. But we need to make everybody be able to think that they could, you know, in some way be participating in this larger politics - state, local, community and national. But it starts with that sense in school that all of these things are possible.
Fiona Hill: So I would basically say that an awful lot of our initiatives and attention need to go back to where people are starting off, in their local schools and communities, and then, you know, reaching out to these diverse groups on all of that basis to try to bring them forward, but, again, not just thinking of diversity in one aspect.
Ann Johnson: I agree with you 'cause I've lived in every part of the U.S. at this point in time, and I've moved a lot as a child, and I've moved a lot as an adult for my job. I also grew up as a - low income in a very rural area and did take advantage of community college to get started 'cause I wouldn't have been able to go to college had I not taken, you know, what's considered a different path. But I will tell you this. Having lived in every part of this country, regardless of what your background is, regardless of what your education is, regardless of what your race is, regardless of where you are from a socioeconomic standpoint, Americans have more in common than they don't.
Fiona Hill: Yes.
Ann Johnson: And basically, it's taking care of their families, putting food on the table. It's those kitchen-table issues that politicians like to talk about, right? That's generally what most Americans are concerned about. And the fact that we could potentially - and I love the idea of public service, of having some type of, you know, citizen public service, where people have different experiences outside of their bubble because - and I'm just going to tell you this because I think it's funny.
Ann Johnson: When I - when we moved from Chicago to the New York metro area, my husband was a native Chicagoan. He'd never lived anywhere else, by the way. And the one observation he made to me - 'cause I used to tease him - right? - about the fact that he'd never lived anywhere but Chicago. And he said, hey, you know what, Ann? For as sophisticated as New York claims to be, he said, I have met plenty of people from Queens or Brooklyn or wherever he was working that have never actually even been outside their borough.
Fiona Hill: Yeah.
Ann Johnson: And when you have that division of people who just haven't ever left what they know, you're not going to develop empathy or understanding or appreciation of the people in Iowa - right? - if you've never left Brooklyn. So I think it's really something we should reinforce and try to get folks outside of their bubbles. I like to call them bubbles because I truly think that's what they are.
Fiona Hill: I agree with you completely. And I think that this is, again, another private - public-private enterprise. Philanthropists can play a role. But I think there should be an opportunity for any kid, you know, from Queens, Chicago, Sioux City - you know, you name it - who could have a chance to go, at least for a week or two weeks, to somewhere else.
Fiona Hill: So I'm, you know, really an advocate for all these exchanges and opportunities to meet people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds 'cause, you know, I grew up in the equivalent of the United Kingdom a small region in the northeast of England that had been - it's very much the equivalent of Carbon County in Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. It was all coal mining. And many people in my area had never been out of the region at all. Some of them hadn't even been to the main city of Durham, County Durham, even if they were from 10, 15 miles or whatever. And it was just a lack of opportunity. You know, sometimes the idea of getting on several buses - because people didn't have cars, and it was very difficult to get about - was just a bit too much.
Fiona Hill: But if you were given the opportunity to go, someone said, hey, you know, how about going for a week to this camp or a sort of summer camp equivalent or out to this kind of program, most kids would jump at the opportunity. So I think starting early and getting people to realize that there's a lot of other places out there where they can have connections and they can feel at home.
Fiona Hill: Mobility in the United States now, according to my colleagues at the Brookings Institution who work on this - William Frey, a demographer who's got some fantastic research if people want to check that out on the Brookings research lab, about how the United States is changing. He's pointed out that the United States is less mobile geographically now in terms of people moving like you did, you know, from Chicago to New York and elsewhere in search of work than at any time since World War II.
Ann Johnson: That's fascinating.
Fiona Hill: So we've kind of gone back, you know, to a kind of an earlier period, and it's COVID, and it's the Great Recession. And it's also - because in a way, connectivity at the cyber, you know, level - we don't have to leave our rooms to go anywhere. We can flick through pictures of Chicago or New York (laughter). Who needs to go? You know, this is kind of also part of the problem.
Ann Johnson: It's fascinating. It's also, as you know, tribal. I remember my grandparents, they emigrated to New Jersey from Oldham from England.
Fiona Hill: Right.
Ann Johnson: They'd never been to London.
Fiona Hill: What?
Ann Johnson: But they emigrated to, first, Pennsylvania and then to New Jersey. And they had very little experience outside of, you know, that world of, you know, north central or central England - right? - that they just never left. So it's just tribal. And I agree with you. I don't think that technology, in some ways, is making it better because you have less incentive to get on a plane or to go someplace.
Fiona Hill: Yeah, that's very true. And I - you know, my home area is just a little bit north of Oldham, from where your family were from, and I'd only been to London a handful of times by the time I emigrated to the U.S. as well. The first big city I lived in was Moscow (laughter), which is obviously a little bit different. And then the next one was Boston. You know, so I had no experience of living in a big city in the United Kingdom. I lived in a blue-collar working-class town which was really down on its luck. I had no idea of what it was like being in a prosperous, you know, vibrant metropolitan area in the United Kingdom.
Ann Johnson: Yeah. It's fascinating. But all those experiences are, you know, what brings diversity to thought and conversation. And so I want to talk about role modeling. There's a lot to be said about role modeling for younger generations. And, you know, I was mentioning to my daughter, who is now 20, that, you know, I was interviewing you. And she laughed. And, you know, I'll be a little colloquial on what she said, but she - you know, I'll paraphrase it a bit because she said, wow, I didn't know you interviewed famous people; I just thought you interviewed, like, those security geeks.
Fiona Hill: (Laughter).
Ann Johnson: And I was like, good to know. But you're a role model, whether you, you know, recognize that or not. So can you discuss the importance of giving the younger generation this ability to believe that, as we talked about, being part of government and national security? Can you give people, you know, that younger generation the motivation, the sense that they could have this career, also?
Fiona Hill: Well, they absolutely can. And, you know, I think that my own experience proves it. It really underscores, however, the importance of mentorship and, as you were saying, about having role models. So when I started off in the north of England, there was very little likelihood that I would end up in, you know, any kind of major professional position. I mean, in fact, I mean, anything in the private sector, public sector, certainly national security, seem pretty far-fetched. But I did have in my own family examples of women who were older than me - and my extended family, like, actually, the second, third cousins - who'd gone to university. And they were, you know, 10-plus years older than me. And in the north of England, people would refer to them as clever lasses. And my dad would always talk about the clever lass cousins that I had and, you know, named them and basically said, you know, we all shared the same great-grandparents. They did that. You could do that. And they - you know, they'd gone on - off into education. One of them had become a canon in the Church of England, which is pretty impressive, and a professor of theology. And, I mean, although I didn't know them and they were so much older than me, my dad, my father, would talk about them a lot.
Fiona Hill: And a part of it is, also, I think men play a very important role for women, to be honest - men in the forms of your fathers, your uncles, your grandfathers, your neighbors - because, you know, north of England, people would think it was pretty sexist and misogynistic. I didn't find that as I was growing up. My granddad and my dad, you know, they were all miners or former coal miners. I was not going to be a miner as a girl. So that was - that meant that all kinds of things might theoretically be open to me if I had an education. And there's people telling me, well, of course you could do that. You know, there's educational opportunities that we didn't have. You go off and get an education.
Fiona Hill: The title of the book is, you know, "There's Nothing For You Here" - was what my dad said to me in 1984 when I was leaving school. I left high school. And there was a 90% unemployment rate for youth at that point. So my dad was basically saying, look; you've got to get out there and to do something else. It was setting things in motion. Then along the way, I find all these people who wanted to help me. And so I think that, you know, the message that I'm trying to send in the book and the message, I would say, overall is everybody can be a role model. And everybody can be a mentor to someone who's just a little bit behind them in the career ladder or in life. And men can be mentors to women. Women can be mentors to men. Different generations can be mentors to each other. You can mentor up.
Fiona Hill: I mean, I'm sure with your daughter in her 20s has told you, you know, quite a few things that you didn't know that have helped you, you know, in your job, you know, given you a bit of a reality check about how the world is. Certainly, my teenager does that, you know? It's actually quite helpful to hear, you know, some things. Oh, Mom, people don't do that anymore, you know? They do this and, you know, something else. You're thinking about this in the wrong way. And you can't say that anymore. That'll get you into trouble. You know, all of these things are all kind of important parts of that.
Fiona Hill: But the message that I came away from my life experiences was that, you know, yes, I worked hard. You know, I was, you know, kind of really diligent about my studies. I saw education as opening a door. But I was also lucky because I had people who wanted to help me. And I would just say to everybody out there, be a mentor and a role model yourself for others because it's only as we do everything collectively that we're all going to be able to move forward. So, you know, put your hand down. And, you know, help somebody, you know, who's just a little bit behind you in the career ladder or a young person of, you know, your similar background who you see that might be struggling a little bit because that's what happened to me at every turn.
Fiona Hill: And in the book that I've just finished, I actually lay all of this out, about how other people were really role models and mentors for me. One woman, when I got to Harvard, you know, took a look at me wearing my student - graduate student - impecunious graduate student look of sort of a T-shirt and ripped jeans and a pair of Doc Marten boots and said, you know, you need a suit. And I was very embarrassed. And I said, well, I actually don't have any money for a suit. And she took me to TJ Maxx and bought me a suit and some tops and basically just told me to make sure that every time I went to a seminar, I was trying to get people's attention, you know, for something I was trying to do or say. Wear that suit. Wear one of the different tops. She said, men will never notice if you wear the same suit all the time (laughter). And there won't be too many women at this point, you know, to even notice either (laughter). So - you know, just keep at it. And then eventually, you know, you'll be able to buy your own self a suit. And, you know, everything will be fine. Yeah. So there's all kinds of ways in which you could be a role model. And she was always just very honest with me about some of the problems that I would encounter. And for me, that was incredibly helpful.
Ann Johnson: That's an amazing example of true mentorship. And I have a very similar background to you. And I grew up in a family of trucker - lorry drivers and in a rural town. And I remember my father - and about the same age, by the way. And I remember my father saying to me as he's pushing me out the door, said, you've got a big brain. Go do something with it. And even as - my parents have passed away. But I also remember - and I think you'll find this to be amusing - is later in life, they actually considered me an underachiever because I didn't become a professor or a doctor or a lawyer. Those were the professions they felt that I should have used my big brain to do. And it was kind of funny that I - when I explained to them what I did do, there was a level of appreciation. But that generation, it wasn't - you know, you don't have this advanced degree that's tangible. And you're not - you know, you're not a lawyer or a doctor. So we - you know, we don't really understand this tech stuff. And that was a generation thing. They were members of the silent generation.
Fiona Hill: Right, exactly right.
Ann Johnson: You know, they didn't really understand. But that mentorship of someone taking you out and buying a suit is fascinating. And I love the story in the title of your book, "There's Nothing For You Here." So can you talk a little bit about what you're working on now, talk about your book and what people can expect from you in the future?
Fiona Hill: Well, I was really pushed to write the book, in many respects, by my experiences during the impeachment hearings, the first impeachment hearings in October and November of 2019. You know, I didn't see the government trying to do something about all of the security issues we were facing with the Russians. And I came out on the other end extraordinarily worried about all the things that we're talking about - the polarization in American society, the vulnerabilities that we were creating for ourselves on the national security front by our partisan divisions, our polarization, the exploitation of social media by domestic actors, not just by foreign actors, and, you know, the way in which we've managed to have this massive disconnect in spite of all of this connectivity between, you know, regular Americans, who, as you say, want just the best for themselves and their families, and our political and technical and, you know, professional classes - this kind of idea that there's a class divide based on your education and that, you know, you're more likely to vote one way than another depending on whether you went to a two- or four-year college or not or whether you've got a high school qualification. And that really bothered me.
Fiona Hill: And I'd also said in the testimony when I was trying to explain who I was and, you know, why I was there that America had given me amazing opportunities, which is true, but I also realized that those opportunities were time specific because you and I, Ann, are of the same generation. My husband, who also grew up in Chicago, in the suburbs, like yours, he - like I - had grants, Pell Grants and others to go to college like everybody else in his family. He's from - one of 12 kids. And all of them who went to college got covered, you know, a lot of their education - not all of it, but most of it - by Pell Grants for first-generation going to college and, you know, based on low income. I had the equivalent in the United States - United Kingdom as in the United States. And then I got grants when I came to the United States, and I graduated from one of my degrees with no debt. I mean, how many people can do that now? Very few.
Fiona Hill: And so I started reflecting all of this, on these educational divides and the way that this is pushing us all apart, and I thought, wow, well, this is maybe where I ought to be paying my attention now. It's not just, how do I roll back what's happening from our adversaries, to the Russians that I've spent an awful lot talking about. You know, they're just exploiting what we're doing to ourselves and our own vulnerabilities and fragility. If there wasn't all of this chaos on the domestic front, there'd be nothing for them to do because they're not really inventing any of this. They're just putting fuel to the flames, and we're just tearing ourselves apart at this particular point.
Fiona Hill: And of course, we saw over the course of 2020 how bad things could get. By January 6 and the storming of the Capitol, the fact that our fellow Americans would storm the Capitol building of the U.S. Congress and treat Washington, D.C., as if it's an alien city that they need to lay siege to just tells us, you know, how bad things have gotten.
Fiona Hill: So by writing this book, which is, you know, looking at this from a rather personal lens but also through this lens, an analytical lens, of the work that I've done over many years and the colleagues at the Brookings Institution have done, I'm hoping to try to get, you know, more into the whole debate about what we should do on the domestic front. And so, you know, what I'd like to do next is try to figure out how we can really bring our domestic and foreign policies together and really understanding that our divisions, that all of our infighting is a national security crisis and that we basically have to fix the domestic front at the same time that we try to come up with a kind of coherent strategy for our foreign policy because we are not capable of collective action at this particular point.
Fiona Hill: We saw that, and we still are seeing it with the COVID pandemic. And we're also seeing it with the area that you deal with and all of your colleagues at Microsoft. I mean, we have technical fixes for many of the problems that we see, and we can develop more, and you're doing a lot of research on this. But the biggest problem is, you know, what - we talk about the hacking of the minds - is people's receptivity to misinformation, disinformation, to conspiracy theories, to personality cults and to, you know, their ability not to see the person next to them as their fellow American but as an enemy.
Fiona Hill: You know, that was what I came away with from the testimony. I was deeply disturbed by it and felt like, well, it was all time - it was time for all hands on deck to see if we could do something about this because, you know, this is my country. I mean, I know I still have a bit of a funny accent, but, you know, I've been in America since 1989. I'm incredibly proud to be an American citizen. And, you know, I want the best for America, and I want the best for fellow Americans for them to have the kind of opportunities that I found, you know, for myself when I came here in 1989. And I want people to feel - you know, this might sound, you know, sort of Pollyanna-ish. I'm not naive about this. I know this is going to be incredibly difficult, to feel more affinity not with some, you know, affinity group on Facebook but with their fellow Americans, from all their diverse perspectives.
Fiona Hill: And we're at a critical tipping point in the United States now. Our demographics are changing dramatically, and some people are having a really hard time with that fast pace of change. And so, you know, others among us have to stand up and say, look; it's OK. You know, this happens in all kinds of societies at different times. And, you know, you'll be able to get through this, and just - you have to find ways of adapting to these changing circumstances. And diversity is a gift; it's not a threat.
Ann Johnson: Yeah, change is hard. Change is just hard.
Fiona Hill: Yeah.
Ann Johnson: And we have to help people through it. We have to be empathetic to their resistance also and help them.
Ann Johnson: This has been fascinating. I really appreciate you spending the time. I think you've given us a lot of great insight. And, you know, cybersecurity threats are a national security threat. And all of the misinformation, disinformation, polarization, the fact that we can't come together in collective response is only exacerbating and allowing those bad actors, whether they're internal or outside the U.S., to take advantage and to launch further cyberattacks. So thank you so much for taking the time to join me today.
Fiona Hill: Oh, thank you so much, Ann. It's a real pleasure. And I just want to send all my best wishes to you and your colleagues. And thank you for the opportunity to talk to you.
Ann Johnson: Thank you.
Ann Johnson: And many thanks our audience for listening. Join us next time on "Afternoon Cyber Tea."
Ann Johnson: So we invited Dr. Fiona Hill on "Afternoon Cyber Tea" because there is such intersectionality between misinformation, disinformation and cyberattacks, whether it's the same actors who are, you know, perpetrating the same type of attacks or whether there is actually a correlation between the attacks themselves and adversaries taking advantage of the disinformation and misinformation environment to launch cyberattacks. And it was just a fascinating conversation, and it's going to be one of my favorite "Afternoon Cyber Teas," though I have a really hard time choosing. They're all my favorites.