The mood was dismal but not hopeless at a daylong University conference April 7 that addressed how our democracy is threatened by Russian hacking and election interference, loss of privacy due to technology, and the “post-truth” media landscape.

Democracy must be actively protected, said keynote speaker Michael V. Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of the CIA and National Security Agency.  

“I am not predicting civil war or societal collapse in North America,” Hayden said. But he added: “The processes, the attitudes, the cultural mores that we have used for a couple centuries to keep our democracy, they’re at risk.”

Speakers largely agreed that Russian interference exploits pre-existing divisions within the American cultural and political landscape, largely through false information spread by social media.

“Truth is not incentivized online,” said Matt Chessen, a career U.S. diplomat and technology adviser in the State Department. “Facts [become] what you can convince people of.”

Machine-learning algorithms that prioritize entertaining content over truthful content and the growth of polarized news outlets make “true” news difficult to distinguish from fabricated news, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius said. And without truth, the United States becomes a “democracy without guardrails,” he said, referring to a concept developed by political researchers Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky.

Ignatius predicted that artificial intelligence will soon fabricate videos, images, and voice-overs, further putting the truth at risk, and political candidates could claim that evidence against them was fabricated. “A candidate’s denials will be more convincing, at least to supporters,” he said.

“What the Russians did was an attack from an unexpected direction on a previously unknown weakness.”

—  Michael V. Hayden, retired four-star general and former director of the CIA and National Security Agency

Speakers offered a number of ways to address to these threats to truth and democracy.

Molly Roberts, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, said tech companies should make their methods and privacy policies more transparent to the public. “We need more information about information,” she said.

Beyond government regulation, tech companies have a responsibility to consider the ethical and social implications of their innovations and networks. “What we need is more people in the governance of technology,” said Federal Trade Commissioner Terrell McSweeny said.

In terms of responding to Russia, several speakers emphasized caution. Sanctions and direct responses could lead to escalation of tensions, said retired Adm. Cecil Haney, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, and economic sanctions can easily expand into conflict. Solutions should take the possibility of escalation into account, he said.

An adequate government response to Russia requires action by President Trump, Hayden said: “What the Russians did was an attack from an unexpected direction on a previously unknown weakness. We need to respond to this attack like we responded to 9/11: We have to go extraordinary. It requires extraordinary energy, focus, resources, and structures. We as a nation don’t go extraordinary unless the president says, ‘do it.’ ”  

Hayden added that Russian interference is one part of the current post-truth world that threatens democracy. “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” he warned.

The event — titled “Defending Democracy: Civilian and Military Responses to Weaponized Information” — was the fourth annual Veterans Summit, held previously at Yale and West Point. It was co-hosted by the Woodrow Wilson School, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Princeton Veterans Alumni Association.