The German Marshall Fund’s first virtual Brussels Forum continues this week. Tune in for conversations with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, and others. View the full agenda and register here

Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine and Fellow for Media and Digital Disinformation Bret Schafer will discuss foreign interference and the impact of social media on the upcoming 2020 general election on a Secure Elections Network webinar on June 28 at 5:00 pm ET. Register here

Our Take

The firing of the heads of four networks overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media risks making the United States’ own independent, federally-funded media look more like Russia’s RT and China’s CGTN, Co-Directors Zack Cooper and Laura Rosenberger assert in an ASD blog post.  

To succeed in the information arena, democracies need to reframe the information contest to capitalize on their own advantages and exploit authoritarian weaknesses, Director Laura Rosenberger and Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman argued in The Washington Quarterly

While Zoom is creating mechanisms whereby it can suspend Chinese accounts without affecting those in the United States, the Tiananmen debacle—when the company blocked the account of a U.S.-based Chinese activist to comply with a Chinese law that forbids discussion of the 1989 pro-democracy movement—raises broader questions about whether “one company, two systems” will continue to be morally palatable in the United States, Gorman said in a ChinaFile conversation. She further argued in Newsweek that American companies like Zoom need to support democratic values of openness and freedom of information at home and abroad

5G is expected to be a core component of digital infrastructure in the 2020s and 2030s, demonstrating an importance for U.S. policymakers to examine pathways for effective governance and regulation, Gorman, Harvard’s Hugo Yen, and Virginia Tech’s David Simpson write in the 5G Factsheet for Policymakers as part of Harvard’s Technology Factsheet Series. 

ASD is updating the Authoritarian Interference Tracker, a tool which maps and catalogs over 400 instances of Russian state-sponsored efforts to undermine democracy in over 40 countries. Read about the changes you can expect to see soon here.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

For the first time since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, coverage of racism, police brutality, and related protests did not feature among the top ten hashtags or key phrases (in aggregate) used by Russian, Chinese, and Iranian diplomatic and state-funded media accounts last week. That said, anti-racism protests and additional cases of police brutality in the United States continued to be widely covered, particularly by Iranian media and diplomats on Twitter and in China, on CGTN America’s YouTube channel. As is customary, pandemic coverage dominated the outputs of all three countries, though coverage last week was less antagonistic than noted in weeks past. Outside of pandemic and protest coverage, there was little topical overlap between the three countries, as they each focused on issues more directly related to their own core interests. For Beijing, that meant coverage of the border conflict with India, as well as efforts to paint Xinjiang province as a terrorist hotbed, thus justifying its actions against Uyghurs after President Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Act of 2020 into law last week. For Moscow, that meant a return to World War II historical memory narratives, highlighted by a long-form essay penned by Vladimir Putin celebrating the “75th Anniversary of the Great Victory.” And for Tehran, that meant an effort to emphasize its role as a patron to American adversaries Syria and Venezuela, a partner to U.S. major power rivals Russia and China, and a bulwark against U.S. aggression around the world. 

Read more here

News and Commentary

Reports reveal suspected Russian government information operations continue across a wide range of platforms ahead of the 2020 election: Last Tuesday, social media analysis company Graphika published a report exposing a six-year-long information operation, likely carried out by actors tied to the Russian government, that targeted perceived opponents of the Putin regime, including former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, and the World Anti-Doping Agency. The operation, dubbed “Secondary Infektion,” involved inauthentic accounts and forgeries stretching across more than 300 different social media platforms. According to The New York Times, Russian government-linked actors may have also played a key role in spreading disinformation following voting difficulties during the Iowa caucuses earlier this year; they reportedly identified and spread online content tying the failure of a vote-reporting app used in the caucus to former staffers of the 2016 Clinton campaign. Both reports marked a shift in tactics from 2016, acknowledging how the operatives did not try to create stories or “go viral,” but instead amplified existing narratives. Facebook and Twitter have both noted the evolving nature of foreign information operations in response to their platforms’ efforts to combat coordinated inauthentic behavior. ASD Fellow for Digital Media and Disinformation Bret Schafer has warned that authoritarian actors are exploiting widening social divisions in the United States by amplifying polarizing and extreme viewpoints online. (The Washington Post, Graphika, Forbes, The New York Times, The Hill, NPR)

Facebook launches voting information center and new user option to hide political ads on its platform: Last Tuesday, Facebook announced two new initiatives in preparation for the 2020 presidential election: 1) a Voting Information Center that will provide information to U.S. voters on where, when and how to vote; and 2) a new political ad setting that will allow users to limit how often they view political advertising on both Facebook and Instagram. While Facebook will continue to allow political ads on its platforms, these actions appear to be part of a broader effort to assuage critics, who argue the company must do more to moderate harmful speech. Some experts claim that the changes appear more superficial than practical, pointing out that less tech-savvy users will struggle to make changes to their Facebook ad settings. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers continued to press the company on its newsfeed algorithm last week, calling on the tech giant to provide more transparency about how it prioritizes what content users see. ASD Head of Research and Policy Jessica Brandt has asserted that tech companies must take proactive steps to prevent malign actors from flooding the information space and to ensure information on their platform, particularly about election processes, is accurate and reliable. (TechCrunch, The New York Times, The Hill, Wired, Engadget, ASD)

Italy, Germany, and other European countries encounter issues with privacy while rolling out contact tracing apps: Last week, both Italy and Germany released contact tracing apps  that use technology developed by Apple and Google; the software from the tech companies requires the state-backed apps to decentralize data collection and limit what data can be collected, a move that public health experts criticized for valuing privacy over education about the virus. In an attempt to walk the line between state intrusion and public health complaints, Italy’s new app is voluntary, which prioritizes consumer choice, but also risks the effectiveness of the app. In a report by Guardsquare, experts found that only one app among 17 state-backed contact tracing apps is “fully protected” by their security assessment. Similarly, an investigation by the International Digital Accountability Council found that eight contact-tracing apps share information with third-parties. These revelations contribute to the ongoing global debate on safeguarding privacy and limiting data collection by contact tracing software. Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman has argued that in the emergency pandemic response, democracies must balance safeguarding data privacy with public health initiatives in efforts to curtail the virus to avoid falling in line with authoritarian tactics of data collection. (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Guardsquare, Politico, The Washington Post, CBS News)

In case you missed it

  • According to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the country’s government, institutions, and essential businesses are victims of an ongoing state-backed cyber attack. Earlier this past week, Australian Foreign Minister Marisa Payne contended that both China and Russia have used coronavirus fears to undermine Western democracies by spreading disinformation online, citing the recent report by the European Commission. 
  • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claims that the Chinese Communist Party is pushing an online disinformation campaign that seeks to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday made an unsubstantiated claim that foreign countries will print mail-in ballots to rig election results. Election experts argue that these attacks on mail-in voting may be undermining confidence in U.S. elections.  
  • Video conferencing platform Zoom will roll out end-to-end encryption to all users by the end of the month, as privacy and security concerns mount against the company. 
  • Google will expand its fact-check labeling to include some misleading photos to try to make it easier for users to identify manipulated or phony images online.
  •  The U.S. State Department designated four Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions,” asserting that the organizations produce propaganda for the Chinese government rather than legitimate news.

ASD in the News

Laura Rosenberger on Chinese Information Operations, “The Lawfare Podcast.” Comments by Director Laura Rosenberger 

Bret Schafer on online threats to the U.S. election, SiriusXM’s “Press Pool with Julie Mason.” Comments by Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer 

20 Ways to Protect the 2020 Presidential Election, Secure Elections Network. Comments by Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine 

The CIA’s cyber intelligence unit had terrible cybersecurity, inquiry finds, Salon. Comments by Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman 

NATO left in the dark, Euronews. Comments by Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina

Iran pushes false COVID-19, protest info in effort to lift sanctions, Newsy. Comments by Fellow for the Middle East Ariane Tabatabai

Quote of the Week

“The growing threat from strategic corruption has gone largely unnoticed or underappreciated in the Pentagon and the State Department. It is not enough to subcontract the problem out to federal prosecutors and hope for the best; the response needs to move to the center of foreign and national security policy. That will require public and private campaigns to monitor corruption, efforts by lawmakers to eliminate vulnerabilities in the U.S. legal and political systems, and an end to Washington’s overreliance on economic sanctions, which will become less and less effective if U.S. rivals can offer alternative means of support.”

– Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman, former State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow, former Defense and State Department Advisor Kristofer Harrison, and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Ward Gventer write on the asymmetric use of weaponized corruption in democracies by their nondemocratic enemies in Foreign Affairs (July/ August 2020). 

Newsletter Sign Up

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.