Securing Democracy Dispatch
News and Commentary
FEC begins process to draft new disclaimer rules for online political ads: The Federal Election Commission (FEC) voted unanimously Thursday to begin the process of drafting new regulations for online political ads. The decision follows an open comment period that garnered 150,000 comments, including from social media companies and numerous organizations. In its comments, Facebook endorsed “rules requiring greater transparency around candidate-focused ads that run in the weeks around Election Day,” but did not address issue ads, despite Facebook’s finding that “90 percent of the Russian-bought content that ran on its network did not mention Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.” Google went a step further, endorsing “a broad rule that would ban foreign entities from buying any kind of political ad aimed at influencing voters, not just the ones that mention candidates.” Twitter proposed a “Transparency Center, where Twitter users could view information on political tweets,” but stopped short of advocating for disclaimers on individual tweets, which the company said could “alter the way users engage with the platform on mobile devices.” The Alliance’s Rosenberger and Fly urged the FEC to “revise its regulations … to close this loophole in our system,” further stating that while “political advertising online is only one part of a multi-pronged effort by the Kremlin to undermine our democracy and interfere in our elections,” new FEC rules would be a “critical step to shoring up our country’s defenses.” (Mediapost, Fast Company, Recode, Chicago Tribune, CNBC, GMF)
RT registers under FARA: According to the Department of Justice, RT’s production company, T&R Productions, LLC, registered Monday with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which will require that RT label its content to make “it clear its reports are distributed on behalf of the Russian state.” RT will also be required to disclose financial information. Russia has said it will challenge the requirement in court and immediately pledged to retaliate by expanding its own “foreign agents” legislation, which has been used up to this point to target nongovernmental organizations and will now include media outlets that receive foreign funding. The draft law was unanimously approved in Russia’s lower house of parliament on Wednesday. According to the The New York Times, the “proposed law appears far broader in its potential application, covering all foreign media organizations, not only state-run outlets,” and will likely target Voice of America, RFE/RL, and others. (Department of Justice, Reuters, Bloomberg, BBC, The New York Times)
Russians laundering money through real estate: As an NBC News and Reuters joint investigation finds this week, investing in luxury real estate is a loophole that “organized crime and drug trafficking” can exploit. Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, a Brazilian real estate salesman who helped sell condo units for a Trump hotel project in Panama, told NBC News and Reuters that “I had some customers with questionable backgrounds,” but that “Nobody ever asked me. Banks never asked. Developer didn’t ask … ‘Who are the customers, where did the money come from?’” As AlterNet reports, Nogueira said that “at least half of [his] ... customers were Russians, including some with ‘questionable backgrounds.’' Only later did he learn of their ties to Russian organized crime circles.” According to Global Witness, “investing in luxury properties is a tried and trusted way for criminals to move tainted cash into the legitimate financial system … In most countries, regulation is notoriously lax in the real estate sector. Cash payments are subject to hardly any scrutiny, giving opportunistic and unprincipled developers free rein to accept dirty money.” Global Witness calls on the proper authorities to investigate these allegations, and urges countries to strengthen their disclosure laws, including “requir[ing] lawyers who carry out transactions for their clients … to know who their clients are and the source of their funds.” (NBC News, AlterNet, Global Witness)
More revelations on Russian support for Brexit: British Prime Minister Theresa May, while stopping short of directly implicating Russia in Brexit, accused Russia of meddling in elections, stating that Russia is “seeking to weaponize information … in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions … threatening the international order on which we all depend.” Damian Collins, the chairman of Britain’s Commons culture, media and sport select committee, called “on Twitter to release examples of U.K.-related postings” linked to Russia’s troll-factory the Internet Research Agency (IRA) as Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that 419 IRA-linked accounts attempted “to influence U.K. politics.” And scientists at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley found that “Russian Twitter accounts posted almost 45,000 messages about Brexit in the 48 hours around last year’s referendum.” Ciaran Martin, head of the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre, also confirmed for the first time that “Russian hackers attacked British media, telecoms and energy companies over the last year.” Meanwhile, former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who is in exile following Catalonia’s independence vote, was the first guest on Scottish independence leader Alex Salmond’s new talk show on RT, in the continued alignment of Russia and separatist forces. (The Washington Post, The Guardian, Reuters, The National)
Examination of Russian and Chinese influence operations: According to Robert Service writing in The Guardian, “Russian leaders have taken a cool look at the world and decided that they have nothing to lose … [Putin] is probing weak spots in Europe on the basic principle of making them weaker.” Writing for The Cipher Brief, Major General Volodymyr Havrylov, defense attache of Ukraine in the United States, describes how Russia’s tactics developed during the Soviet Union to mislead enemy army forces have evolved in Putin’s Russia “from tactical camouflage in military operations to a broader set of means of denial and deception on a strategic level — including political, economic, and diplomatic measures to achieve international goals.” As Rick Stengel describes in Politico, the “annexation of Crimea, the soft invasion of eastern Ukraine and the social media tsunami around these events [are] all part of a long-term KGB military strategy known as ‘active measures’ — a bland term for the weaponization of information to achieve strategic goals,” which are to use “disinformation, propaganda and cyberwar to weaken the West, foment division in NATO and undermine America’s image around the world.” Writing in Foreign Affairs, Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig describe how Russia and China both use “sharp power” to increase their influence abroad “through initiatives in the spheres of media, culture, think tanks, and academia,” which is not “an effort to ‘share alternative ideas’ or ‘broaden the debate,’ but centered on “distraction and manipulation,” which Russia and China increasingly apply abroad in order to “suppress political pluralism and free expression,” and thus undermine Western liberal ideals and democratic norms. (The Guardian, The Cipher Brief, Politico, Foreign Affairs)
Freedom of the Net report — Disinformation goes global: Freedom House, which released its annual Freedom of the Net report Tuesday, finds that “The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global … The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.” The report finds that “At least 18 nations holding elections in 2016 experienced some kind of information attacks similar to the Russian social media campaign in the U.S. … [and] In at least 16 nations, including the U.S., Columbia, Ecuador, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, those election campaigns included a substantial influx of deliberately fabricated news stories.” The report listed the different "disinformation tactics" as “progovernment commentators," "automated accounts on social media to manipulate online discussions," “hijacking social media accounts and news sites,” “fake news on social media,” and "progovernment news and propaganda." (Recode, The Hill, NPR)
Russian disinformation campaigns: DFR Lab looked at the history of a far-right Twitter account @TEN_GOP, which had 130,000 followers, that Twitter has exposed as an IRA fake, and shows how the account cultivated its following and fooled Americans and the media. In an NBC News expose this week with Vitaly Bespalov, a Russian man who worked at Russia’s IRA troll factory, he describes IRA’s work as "Lies ... a merry-go-round of lies," saying he “‘absolutely’ believes the agency is connected to the Kremlin.” And as John Sipher alludes to in this tweet, the IRA is likely only one of the Kremlin’s troll farms. (Medium, NBC News, Twitter)
Could Mexican election be Russia’s next target?: Russia’s election meddling is not limited to the transatlantic space. Shannon O’Neil urges us to consider, “if Russia truly wants to damage the U.S. and weaken the western world order, Mexico’s elections next year offer a more rewarding and more vulnerable target.” O’Neil believes that Mexico is vulnerable to Russian interference, both because Mexico’s government is not resourced to address disinformation and because “Disinformation campaigns are most effective when they prey on deep-seated beliefs and latent conflicts. The U.S. and Mexico have these in spades.” Fernando Garcia Ramirez , writing in El Financiero, explains, “the goal of Russian intervention [in Mexico’s elections] is to support candidates who favor authoritarian populism, the political model that prevails in Russia … [Russia] is already in Mexico and will act in favor of Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador.” The Yucatan Times concurs; “the mechanism actually being used by the Russians is pure propaganda. An essential element of the Russian propaganda network abroad is the Russian TV channel, Russia Today […] whose news broadcast coverage visibly supports presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.” According to O’Neil, “Mexico needs to learn from the U.S. experience, and safeguard its electoral process from outside tampering … [Mexicans’] choice next July should be their own, not influenced by foreign agitators with very different goals in mind.” (CFR, El Financiero, The Yucatan Times)
In War on the Rocks, The Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly underscore that the2016 election was not the beginning of Russia’s influence operations in the United States, nor did it mark the end of Russia’s interventions in our democracy. They outline some of the tough questions that need to be addressed in order to defend against the full toolkit that Russia uses to undermine our democracy, and stress the need for immediate action by Congress, the administration, tech companies, the media, and Americans of all political affiliations to address the vulnerabilities that Russia has exploited. (War on the Rocks)
The Alliance for Securing Democracy and GLOBSEC held a conversation on lessons-learned in combatting disinformation on both sides of the Atlantic on Tuesday, November 14, 2017.
Offering views from both sides of the Atlantic, presenters underscored the need to look comprehensively at Russia’s full toolkit, and develop responses that address the full range of tools being used to undermine democracies. Building resiliency and inoculating against disinformation were also a common theme highlighted by the panel. Panelists also underscored the need for transatlantic cooperation and sharing of lessons learned to combat this shared threat. GLOBSEC’s Daniel Milo shared a video they had produced using innovating means to better inform youth in Slovakia about the problem of disinformation and urge them to be critical in evaluating sources of information.
A video of the entire conversation is available on the Alliance’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/securedemocracy/.
Dashboards Hamilton 68 and Artikel 38
Hamilton 68 dashboard: What do coffee machines, Roy Moore, Star Trek, and Saudi Arabia have in common? In the past week, they were all subjects of stories promoted by Kremlin-oriented accounts that used sexual misconduct allegations to inflame partisan divides. More than 40 percent of the top URLs on the dashboard focused on various allegations of sexual assault or sexual misconduct; of those stories, 42 percent attacked accused Democrats (or those connected to liberal causes, including former Trekkie George Takei), 54 percent defended Roy Moore, and one story promoted a narrative of a Saudi-linked pedophile rings (Saudi Arabia, of course, is a Russian adversary in the Middle East). The defense of Moore was particularly pronounced last Sunday and Monday, when coffee maker Keurig, which pulled advertising from Sean Hannity after he defended Moore, was the subject of a coordinated boycott campaign that saw #boycottKeurig become the most used hashtag among Kremlin-influenced accounts.
Artikel 38 dashboard: The anti-EU and anti-immigrant messages that have been so pronounced on the German dashboard over the past two months have started to creep into English-language articles shared by Kremlin-oriented accounts in the United States. In fact, many of the exact same stories that originally appeared in German outlets and were promoted by monitored accounts in Germany — including the story highlighted here last week of a Syrian man caught in a tryst with a petting zoo pony — have later appeared in English language articles on RT and, in the case of the pony story, Sputnik. Stories of migrant crime and EU overreach are two themes where there is consistent overlap between content promoted on both Artikel and Hamilton, with Kremlin-funded media outlets often serving as the translators and amplifiers. (Sputnik)
Quote of the Week
“Numerous independent media in the country get foreign funding. The foreign funding could become a pretext to crack down on them. It is just shockingly disproportionate and broad. The way it is written now, it appears it could be used for many different purposes.”
- Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch, speaking about Russia's foreign agents law that will now regulate foreign media in Russia, November 15, 2017
Worst of the Week
According to Bellingcat, “the Russian Ministry of Defense published multiple posts in Russian, Arabic, and English on their Twitter and Facebook accounts, claiming to show ‘irrefutable evidence’ of collusion between the U.S. and ISIS combat units.” There is one problem — the images came from the mobile phone game AC-130 Gunship Simulator and footage issued by the Iraqi Defense Ministry in 2015. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Wednesday that “’mistakes happen’ and that the person involved was punished.” (Bellingcat, The Washington Post)
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.