Our Take

Director Laura Rosenberger expressed the need for an affirmative strategy to counter Beijing’s use of new and more aggressive information manipulation tactics when she briefed the full House Foreign Affairs Committee today on Chinese disinformation surrounding the coronavirus.

Ahead of 2020, policymakers need to prepare for two particularly challenging scenarios: a deceptive campaign by foreign actors that deliberately coopts authentic domestic institutions and a hack and leak where some material is manipulated, Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt argued on the “War on the Rocks” podcast.

There is no indication that foreign actors are slowing down their efforts to try and interfere in the 2020 election cycle, Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine said on Public News Service’s “2020Talks.”

Read ASD’s latest coronavirus and information manipulation work here.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russia Toplines

The coronavirus remained an important topic in the Russian media ecosystem last week, though its margin of prominence again declined as compared to the previous week. Most pandemic content relayed basic news updates; although, critical responses to U.S. government officials’ claims that the virus originated in a laboratory in China received a fair amount of attention. Russian government and diplomatic accounts on Twitter, along with a much smaller amount of content on websites and YouTube, continued a strong messaging push marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day, which is known as Victory Day and celebrated on May 9 in Russia. Common themes in this campaign emphasized the importance of the Soviet role in World War II, as well as cooperation and friendship with Allied countries.

China Toplines

As in previous weeks, coronavirus continued to dominate messaging from China’s state media and diplomatic outlets. State media highlighted news that two American mercenaries—part of a small force that planned to capture Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and extradite him to the United States—had been captured in Venezuela. Additionally, state media attacked the U.S. government’s positions on the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to cast doubt on the virus’s origins in China and demonstrating China’s support for multilateral efforts to combat its spread. Other messaging attempted to signal to foreign businesses and decisionmakers another step on the China’s return to normalcy following the coronavirus pandemic, while highlighting the negative effects the virus is having inside the United States.

Read more of the analysis here.

News and Commentary

Joint Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security report warns of Russian efforts to influence U.S. politics during election cycle: In a law enforcement memo from earlier this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security reportedly warned states that Russian operatives could directly attempt to influence U.S. politics throughout 2020, including by targeting election infrastructure or secretly making contact with U.S. candidates or campaigns while masquerading as political advisors. The memo cites eight potential tactics that Russia could employ and also highlights that Russia has “sought to take advantage of countries that have perceived loopholes in laws preventing foreign campaign assistance.” Director Laura Rosenberger, former Co-director Jamie Fly, and Deputy Director David Salvo have traced the evolution of the Kremlin’s attempts to infiltrate U.S. politics, particularly through the use of impersonation tactics; this instance represents only the most recent iteration of Russian campaigns to influence U.S. democratic processes and institutions. Head of External Affairs Rachael Dean Wilson also warned that campaigns often lack the necessary resources to respond to foreign interference efforts. (Associated Press, The Hill, ABC News, ASD, Twitter)

 

Facebook removed eight unrelated networks originating in Russia, Iran and others, targeting international and domestic audiences: In its April report on takedowns, Facebook announced that it removed networks of accounts, pages, and groups engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior in Russia, Iran, the United States, Mauritania, Myanmar, and Georgia. The networks originating in Russia used both authentic and fake accounts to post content about geopolitical and local news, including topics related to the U.S. elections and coronavirus outbreak. Some of these pages and groups were also connected to Russian propaganda outlets that promote narratives favorable to the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda, according to the DFRLab’s independent analysis of the takedowns. Facebook found that the accounts originating in the other four countries impersonated opposition leaders, health authorities, and news entities, and in the case of Iran, amplified Iranian state media content. Former Research Assistant Bradley Hanlon has illustrated that Iranian Facebook networks are growing increasingly sophisticated in their attempts to launder propaganda through the Western information ecosystem. (Facebook, Medium, Atlantic Council, Reuters, ASD)

New report finds the Chinese Communist Party surveils WeChat social media accounts not registered in mainland China for politically sensitive content: A new report by Citizen Lab found that political surveillance of communications on the popular Chinese social media app, WeChat, also extends to non-mainland-China users. Previous research showed that WeChat  undertakes censorship of users with accounts registered to phone numbers in China; the platform is legally required to restrict access to certain kinds of online material within China, specifically that which is politically-oriented. Citizen Lab’s new analysis shows that content transmitted among users who register with a phone number outside of mainland-China is actively being censored and used to “invisibly train and build” the app’s political censorship system. China Analyst Matthew Schrader has argued that censorship of online expression is crucial to Beijing’s efforts to dominate global narratives related to China. (Citizen Lab, The Washington Post, First Monday, ASD)

In case you missed it

  • Facebook and Microsoft are among 31 tech and telecom players launching a 5G-focused initiative to get lawmakers to support software-based alternatives to physical 5G infrastructure sold by Huawei and Ericsson.
  • Apple and Google banned the use of GPS location tracking in apps they are developing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
  • New data from the analytics firm NewsGuard found that 35 Facebook groups across France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom spread misinformation and false claims about the coronavirus that were not flagged or fact-checked by the online platform.
  • The ruling party in Poland postponed Sunday’s presidential election due to concerns that the country’s coronavirus lockdown might prevent voters from participating.
  • Some states said they cannot access the $400 million in election security funding included in the first coronavirus stimulus package because of a requirement that they match 20 percent of the money with their own funds.

ASD in the News

How can democracies fight against state-backed disinformation campaigns?, United States Studies Centre. Comments by Co-directors Zack Cooper and Laura Rosenberger

Vote-by-mail debate raises fears of election disinformation, The Associated Press. Comments by Fellow for Media and Digital Disinformation Bret Schafer

RIP Democracy, The Atlantic. Comments by Director Laura Rosenberger

China adopts Russian desinformatsiya tactics to undermine US, Washington Examiner. Comments by Co-director Zack Cooper and Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt 

Countering Chinese and Russian digital influence operations, Center for a New American Security. Comments by Director Laura Rosenberger

Authoritarian regimes use coronavirus tech, CBS News. Comments by Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman

China’s foreign policy is becoming more aggressive, more Russian, and more Trumpian, NZZ am Sontag. Comments by Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina

Tehran and Washington try to frighten each other in the Persian Gulf, Libération. Comments by Fellow for the Middle East Ariane Tabatabai   

La nuova Guerra Fredda (The new Cold War), RAI. Comments by Director Laura Rosenberger

Quote of the Week

“We remain mindful that some may seek to use the pandemic and resulting economic challenges we all face as an opening to invest in critical industries and infrastructure, which in turn may affect long-term security…I have reiterated that all aid offered by each country should be of quality materials and free of strings and interference.”

  • S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said when authorizing the Defense Department to provide humanitarian support to Italy as part of its global coronavirus pandemic relief efforts. (May 4, 2020)
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.