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Russian Propaganda, Domestic Terrorism, America's Electric Grid: RAND Weekly Recap

October 16, 2020

We discuss how Americans respond to Russian memes on Facebook; the possibility of domestic terrorism during election season; why college students need more mental health support; the downside of a “lean” electric grid; teachers' views on social and emotional learning; and the role of allies and partners in U.S. military operations.

Laptop depicting Russian propaganda on Facebook with a bullseye mark, images by guteksk7, iiierlok_xolms, carmelod, and FishPouch/Adobe Stock

Illustration by RAND Corporation

Russian Propaganda Hits Its Mark

Russian propaganda on social media is generating strong partisan reactions that may intensify political divisions among Americans. However, Facebook users are less apt to hit the “like” button if they learn that a post is part of a foreign campaign.

These are the key takeaways from our latest study of online election interference. In a randomized controlled trial of more than 1,500 Facebook users, RAND researchers tested memes that Russia actually used in 2016, and then explored whether a media literacy video or a label that identified the source of the meme could help prevent the spread of propaganda.

Notably, participants who fell into partisan groups on both the left and the right reacted in the strongest and most partisan ways. But people in these groups were also the most likely to change their minds about liking a meme if it was revealed to have come from Russia.

People line up to cast their ballots for the upcoming presidential election as early voting begins in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 6, 2020, photo by Megan Jelinger/Reuters

People line up to cast their ballots during the early voting period in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 6, 2020

Photo by Megan Jelinger/Reuters

Will There Be Domestic Terrorism During Election Season?

The alleged plots to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia underscore the possibility of domestic terrorism this election season. According to RAND's Brian Michael Jenkins, the likelihood and nature of any political violence depends on several variables, including how obvious the election outcome is and how soon we know it. And while a tranquil election is unlikely, America's future “depends more on the good sense of its people than of its political leadership,” he says.

College student using hand sanitizer, wearing a face mask, and walking on a college campus, photo by Nemer-T/Getty Images

Photo by Nemer-T/Getty Images

College Students Need More Mental Health Support

Colleges have long had insufficient resources to meet students' mental health needs. And now, the pandemic has likely made things worse. But according to RAND's Lisa Sontag-Padilla, there are ways for colleges to help struggling students. For example, they could expand remote therapy, engage with crisis centers, and focus on reducing the stigma around mental health issues. This challenging time could be an opportunity to invest in solutions that help students well beyond COVID-19.

Man wearing a hard hat facing away looking at electricity pylons and wires, photo by xijian/Getty Images

Photo by xijian/Getty Images

The Downside of a 'Lean' Electric Grid

Maintaining and protecting the U.S. electric grid is expensive. That's why utility companies have reduced redundancies in infrastructure, minimized staff overhead, and streamlined supply chains. But according to RAND experts, recent disasters—wildfires, hurricanes, and the pandemic—have stretched the grid to a breaking point. It may be time to consider increasing redundancies, staff, and supplies, especially as climate change continues to intensify natural hazards. This would be more costly, but safety and resilience may be more important than “running lean.”

A young teacher educating a group of elementary children

Photo by FatCamera/Getty Images

Teachers' Views on Social and Emotional Learning

Research has shown that social and emotional learning can improve student well-being, social behavior, and academic achievement. More than ever, schools are embracing SEL, but what do teachers think? Results from a new RAND survey show that most teachers have confidence in their ability to improve students' social and emotional skills. But they also identified some challenges. For example, teachers who reported higher levels of their own well-being engaged in SEL practices more than those who reported lower well-being.

The Role of Allies and Partners in U.S. Military Operations

What role should allies and partners play in U.S. national security? What share of defense costs should be covered by America's allies? Should Washington work with allies on technological plans? RAND's Christine Wormuth provided insights into these questions and more in a recent congressional testimony. Overall, she says the bipartisan tradition of valuing alliances and partnerships should continue: “It made sense in the past, and it makes sense going forward.”

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