Asha Rangappa, senior lecturer at Yale University and former FBI counterintelligence Special Agent, sees the rise and impact of disinformation in America as a symptom of an increase in tribalism within our society. She and host Rocky Dhir sit down at the State Bar’s 2019 Annual Meeting to discuss how we came to this point; how, if left unchecked, this could undermine our democracy; and how we can still come together to protect ourselves and our country.
Asha Rangappa is a senior lecturer at the Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a former associate dean at Yale Law School, and formerly a special agent in the New York Division of the FBI, specializing in counterintelligence investigations.
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State Bar of Texas Podcast
State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting 2019: Conversation with Keynote Speaker Asha Rangappa
Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice, with your host Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Hello and welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast recorded from the Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. This is Rocky Dhir and I am the host for today’s show, which is being sponsored by LawPay, trusted by more than 35,000 law firms to accept legal payments online. It’s the only payment solution offered as a member benefit by the State Bar of Texas.
Joining me now I have Asha Rangappa. Asha, welcome.
Asha Rangappa: Thanks for having me.
Rocky Dhir: Absolutely. So Asha, I know you have been here at the Annual Meeting talking to us about disinformation and most lawyers love information, so you are talking about the exact opposite, but before we get into that, tell us a little bit about your background, what you do, and I know people have heard of you, but I am sure they would love to hear it from you.
Asha Rangappa: Yeah. So I am a lawyer. I graduated from Yale Law School in 2000 and I clerked, and I then went to the FBI, 9/11 happened right at the end of my clerkship, so I joined the FBI and I ended up as a special agent doing counterintelligence investigations.
Rocky Dhir: Domestically or was this also like international counterintelligence?
Asha Rangappa: Well, the FBI has primary jurisdiction to monitor foreign intelligence activity in the United States, so basically catching spies that are here in the United States and up to no good.
So I got a lot of experience doing things like electronic surveillance, like FISA, things that at the time I thought no one will — like when will this ever be relevant again in my life, and here I am explaining that now to audiences, but one of the things that I worked on was something called perception management operations.
Rocky Dhir: I need that with my wife sometimes.
Asha Rangappa: Right. So perception management is when a foreign country uses clandestine means to shape US opinion and attitudes towards particular policies or in ways that will help that country, and basically what we have seen since 2016 is that Russia has engaged in an ongoing perception management operation and what I was trying to explain is how that happens and how we are complicit in that and what we can do about it as people, as American citizens and as lawyers.
Rocky Dhir: So we meaning as Americans and as lawyers, is it may be fair to say that we are not victims in this, we kind of helped Russia along in some way?
Asha Rangappa: Exactly. So it’s very tempting to put the blame on disinformation, on social media platforms, for example, or on the government, because they are not stopping it, and they are parts of the solution no doubt. Social media definitely makes it easier and faster for countries like Russia to spread disinformation, but as I explained to the audience today, this has been going on since the Cold War. Social media has made it cheaper and faster.
But the way that we are complicit is that we have become increasingly politically polarized over the last several decades, and as we become more polarized we start to weaken our internal defenses, which is our internal social trust, the ways that we can — our ability to protect against this simply because we have a shared understanding of our values, of our fellow citizens that make us less susceptible to the disinformation and we are now in a much more vulnerable state.
Rocky Dhir: So we hear this term thrown around a lot, fake news, is disinformation that — this concept you are referring to with disinformation and that to perpetrated by foreign parties, is that part of this fake news phenomenon or is it kind of distinct from it?
Asha Rangappa: It’s hard to say now since it’s become such an ubiquitous term and it’s now used to refer to any news that people don’t like, and I think that that kind of — so I probably would just call it disinformation, which is a more precise and technical term. But the very fact that we have this idea of fake news, that the press is the enemy of the people is that we now have political bubbles where people are living in entirely different factual realities. We don’t have —
Rocky Dhir: Echo chambers.
Asha Rangappa: Echo chambers, but really like an unwillingness to accept a basic shared set of facts and also a basic shared set of governing values. And what happens is democracy cannot sustain in that kind of situation. It begins to fall apart. People become more open and susceptible to autocratic tendencies and figures and I think that is where we are headed unless we start to think about how we are engaging with our fellow citizens, how we are using social media and whether we are reinforcing our democratic principles.
Rocky Dhir: So it’s an interesting concept that you bring up, because on the one hand, part of democracy is freedom, and it’s the freedom to associate with those you like associating with, right? So if I want to be with people that share my political views down to the tee, then that’s my right as a member of a democratic society. But it sounds like what you are saying is that I am not being a responsible democratic citizen unless I meaningfully and civilly engage with somebody with possibly opposing viewpoints and try to understand them, is that —
Asha Rangappa: That’s exactly right. So one of the concepts that I explained in my talk was the concept of social capital, and social capital is how we create relationships with each other.
And there is a Harvard professor named Robert Putnam, who wrote a book called ‘Bowling Alone’ and he says we create relationships in one of two ways; bonding and bridging.
So you describe bonding. These are people that are like me, they agree with me, I share characteristics, maybe we share the same race or religion, political affiliation. And bridging is I have relationships with people who are different than me.
Now, what Putnam says is both of these are good, okay. When you bond with people, you have close circle of trust, you have security, a social security net. Think about ethnic enclaves for immigrants who come to this country, that’s what they need. But bridging allows ideas to travel farther, faster. It creates trust among different groups of people.
What happens is that when you do too much bonding and not enough bridging, there are a lot of negative externalities and specifically what happens is people become very tribal, and they become to — they start to mistrust outsiders, it’s in-group, out-group. They create policies based on exclusion and fear of the outsider and so you start to get this imbalance in how we relate to each other and some really dangerous tendencies. I think that’s where we are today.
In other words, you need a balance between the two.
Rocky Dhir: Well, sure, sure. And this sounds like a topic that we could probably talk all day about because it’s huge. We have got limited time here, so I am going to ask you one last question, because I imagine you have got other things to do as well.
Asha Rangappa: No, I could talk on this all day if I didn’t have a plane to catch. It’s a fascinating topic.
Rocky Dhir: I am with you. I am with you. I would stay here too. I guess one last question bringing this back to the world of lawyers, since this is the State Bar Podcast. As lawyers do we need to be trying to think about or starting to promulgate rules for social conduct or how do we play a role in trying to combat tribalism and then I guess the resulting disinformation that can happen from that?
Asha Rangappa: Perfect question, because this was my takeaway message to the group. So when social scientists, political scientists, the behavioral scientists study tribalism, what they find is that people are very reluctant to leave their tribes. It’s all about loyalty. It’s no longer about actually — like whether you believe the information or whether it’s actually factually accurate, you are showing your membership in a tribe.
But one thing that can loosen tribal ties is when you appeal to civic mindedness, to the greater good, to shared principles, to things that are higher, and this is exactly what lawyers are trained to do. This is what we do every day in our profession. You may not believe your defendant is actually innocent, but you believe he or she is entitled to due process in a fair trial and you will zealously defend that right.
And so I think that there is a space for lawyers and the legal profession and Bar Associations to fill a gap in essentially civic education, where they are out there articulating those democratic principles, shared values, rule of law, these things that really define us as a nation and as a way of pulling us out of some of these tribal silos.
Rocky Dhir: It’s interesting because we actually have an episode of the State Bar Podcast called Lawyers as Leaders and I think what you are saying kind of fits directly into that concept that we need to take back the mantle of leadership to try to help lead society the way we at least allegedly once did.
Asha Rangappa: Yes.
Rocky Dhir: And the name of Putnam’s book was ‘Bowling Alone’?
Asha Rangappa: ‘Bowling Alone’.
Rocky Dhir: I bowled alone one time and I lost, so I stopped doing that, but yeah.
Asha Rangappa: Does it count if there is no one there to see you?
Rocky Dhir: That’s a philosophical question. We will do a follow-up podcast on that one.
But folks, it does look like we have reached the end of our program. I want to thank Asha Rangappa for joining us today.
Asha, thank you so much.
Asha Rangappa: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
Rocky Dhir: Now, if our listeners have questions or wish to follow up or want to engage in this discussion, what’s the best way to reach out to you?
Asha Rangappa: Well, they can follow me on Twitter @AshaRangappa_.
Rocky Dhir: Oh, okay, the underscore is at the end.
Asha Rangappa: The underscore is at the end.
Rocky Dhir: That’s innovative.
Asha Rangappa: There were several Asha Rangappas already taken, if you can believe it or not, so I had to add an underscore. So weird.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, whatever works.
Asha Rangappa: Or I also have a website, www.asharangappa.com and among my articles on there is one called Disinformation, Democracy, And the Rule of Law, which essentially lays out the themes that I talked about today in my talk.
Rocky Dhir: Well, good, good. Hopefully somebody will reach out and get more involved.
But unfortunately, that is all the time we have for this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast, brought to you by LawPay. Thank you again LawPay.
Also, thank you to our listeners for tuning in. If you like what you heard, please rate us and review us in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcasting app.
I am Rocky Dhir, until next time, thank you for listening.
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