Our Take

Ahead of the November general election, state and local officials should prepare to adapt their election processes to account for the coronavirus. This includes making plans for the possibility of an influx of in-person voting; reaching out to election officials in other localities, states, and even countries, if necessary, to learn about best practices for conducting elections amid the pandemic; and working with tech companies, government agencies, and civil society to ensure election information is communicated affirmatively and clearly with all eligible voters, Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine advised in a Q & A on ASD’s blog.

Crises such as the global pandemic, with rapidly moving information and a lot of uncertainty and emotion, provide a ripe surface that authoritarian actors can exploit for personal gain, Director Laura Rosenberger said in discussion with the Alliance of Democracies Foundation and Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program.

In order to mitigate information chaos being exploited by malign actors, there must be an increase in transnational media engagement across Europe, argued Program Manager and Fellow Nad’a Kovalcikova in a GLOBSEC paper.

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

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian and Chinese government officials and state media continued to use the ongoing protests and unrest following the killing of George Floyd to portray the United States as a country that is at once repressive and lawless. Beyond highlighting incidents of looting and police brutality (particularly against foreign journalists), both countries also sought to cast the U.S. response to protestors as hypocritical in light of past and present criticisms of human rights abuses in other countries. In the past week, “hypocrisy,” “double standard,” and related search terms appeared in nearly 200 tweets and 20 articles across the two dashboards. Analysis of those tweets and articles revealed nearly identical talking points, though China framed its “whataboutism” narratives in the context of U.S. support for protesters in Hong Kong, while Russia focused on alleged U.S. hypocrisy around the globe. These messages targeted both U.S. and global audiences, as evidenced by the fact that George Floyd was a top topic and hashtag from accounts as diverse as RT Deutsche and CGTN Africa. While both Chinese and Russian messengers posted or promoted content that was occasionally hyperbolic, often provocative, and almost universally dripping with schadenfreude, there was scant evidence of the distribution or amplification of false or misleading information. As with the previous week, the goal appeared to be damaging the appeal of western democracy at home and undermining U.S. credibility abroad, rather than influencing or radicalizing protestors in the United States.

Read more of the analysis here.

News and Commentary

Foreign actors weigh in on social, political, racial unrest spreading throughout United States: Last Thursday, Attorney General William Barr stated during a press conference that the Justice Department is “seeing foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence” that occurred in some protests in the United States. Unnamed White House sources also claimed they had “non-open source information” on efforts by individuals linked to foreign governments, including Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, “to instigate conflict, help incite violence, and divide Americans by exploiting peaceful protests.” Experts tracking online information operations and conducting open-source social media research say they have seen “no evidence to suggest that the current protests have been driven by misinformation or foreign actors.” Data collected from ASD’s Hamilton 2.0 dashboard also shows little evidence that Russia, China, and Iran have engaged in mis-or disinformation or attempted to promote violence. Their efforts seem targeted at undermining U.S. credibility, both at home and abroad. State-backed media’s focus on social, political, and racial unrest in the United States signifies a return to form for Russia, while suggesting a tactical shift for China, whose government officials and state media have typically avoided or limited their coverage of issues that do not directly touch on China’s core strategic interests. Fellow for Media and Digital Disinformation Bret Schafer has urged caution in assigning blame to a foreign adversary, which can often be used to delegitimize what is a legitimate movement. (Justice.gov, The Miami Herald, NBC News, Freeman Spogli Institute, ASD, The Christian Science Monitor)

Challenges with voting in D.C., Maryland, and other states highlight potential issues ahead of November election: Last week’s primary voting across eight states and the District of Columbia was marred by numerous logistical challenges possibly foreshadowing similar complications for the general election in November. Notably, in Washington D.C., many voters who requested mail-in ballots did not receive them in time and resorted to emailed ballots, which experts warn is highly vulnerable to hacking and problematic because there is no method for verifying if the votes were recorded accurately. Maryland also faced challenges in moving to an all-mail election, including delays in distributing mail-in ballots, unexpected surges in in-person voting, and ballot errors that rendered thousands uncountable by machines. Last-minute changes to election processes contributed to voter confusion and long lines for in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests against police violence. Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine outlined key takeaways from the primary elections, emphasizing that state officials must share critical information such as where, when, and how to vote as clearly and proactively as possible. (The Washington Post, Twitter, The Baltimore Sun, Reuters, ASD)

In case you missed it

  • Google reported that Chinese and Iranian hackers targeted the email accounts of staffers working on the presidential campaigns of Joe Biden and President Trump, respectively; the company said there have been no signs of compromise.
  • Last Thursday, Facebook announced that it will start labeling Russian, Chinese, and other state-controlled media organizations and later this summer will block any advertisements from such outlets targeting U.S. users.
  • Twitter said that it will not attempt to tackle all misinformation on its platform but prioritize the posts with the “highest potential for harm,” specifically those related to manipulated media, civic integrity, and the coronavirus.
  • The Senate Intelligence Committee approved a measure in the Intelligence Authorization Act requiring presidential campaigns to report offers of foreign election influence to federal authorities.

ASD in the News

Russia’s 2020 plan, The Week. Comments by Director Laura Rosenberger

Are ‘outside agitators’ exploiting Floyd protests?, The Christian Science Monitor. Comments by Fellow for Media and Digital Disinformation Bret Schafer

China and Russia use George Floyd unrest to make case against democracy, Washington Examiner. Comments by Fellow for Media and Digital Disinformation Bret Schafer

US image takes a hit as world reacts to Floyd protests, The Hill. Features ASD Research

US Accuses Foreign, Online Actors of Inflaming Tensions, VOA. Features ASD Research

Facebook to start labelling state-run media, NBC News. Comments by Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman

Facebook slaps labels on state-controlled media amid anger over Trump’s posts, Politico. Comments by Director Laura Rosenberger

D.C.’s use of email voting shows what could go wrong in November, The Washington Post. Comments by Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine

Strengthening the Alliance in an increasingly competitive world, NATO. Comments by Program Manager and Fellow Nad’a Kovalcikova

How will transatlantic relations change? Key representatives and experts in the security sector are answering, Euractiv. Comments by Program Manager and Fellow Nad’a Kovalcikova

Attempted hacks of Trump and Biden campaigns reveal a race to disrupt the 2020 general election, The Washington Post. Comments by Non-resident Fellow Clint Watts

Quote of the Week

“I believe the truth will prevail and the facts… is the best way to counter propaganda and disinformation. The aim … is to undermine trust in our democratic institutions, to divide allies and abuse our ability to work together… [and] I believe the best way to combat propaganda and disinformation is to have a free an independent press.”

  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg discussing how to strengthen the Alliance in a post-COVID-19 world (June 8, 2020)
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.