Our Take

The United States is capable of conducting safe, secure, and auditable elections in November, especially if states receive additional funding from Congress, Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine explained in his testimony to the House Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Innovation.

The U.S. Congress should follow the lead of the U.K. Parliament and review financial loopholes and enforcement gaps exploited by authoritarian regimes to funnel money into U.S. politics, Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph writes in a GMF Transatlantic Take.

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

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state media and government accounts once again took aim at the United States last week, with the most pointed commentary coming from China and Iran. On July 31, a series of tweets from the Supreme Leader of Iran’s many foreign language accounts highlighted efforts to unify global audiences (including those in the United States) against U.S. foreign policy. For example, the Supreme Leader’s Russian-language account claimed that the United States paints Russia, China, and Iran as enemies in order to “lobby for its goals.” Anti-U.S. messaging was also a central theme in China’s outputs last week, with foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying using a memeified version of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s now infamous “we lied, we cheated, we stole” quote to challenge the credibility of the Trump administration. Russian state media’s most interesting coverage last week related to the detention of more than 30 members of Russian private military company Wagner Group in Belarus for allegedly planning to disrupt the upcoming election there. Russian officials’ reactions were somewhat muted, reflecting a pattern of relative silence when it comes to discussing the actions of a group whose affiliation with the Kremlin the Russian government denies. A TASS headline exemplified this diplomatic tightrope routine, as the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs prodded Minsk to “stop escalating negative emotions.”

Read more here.

News and Commentary

Reporting reveals Russian intelligence services are spreading coronavirus disinformation amidst warnings of foreign interference in the 2020 election: According to The New York Times, U.S. officials have discovered that Russian intelligence services are spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic through English-language websites. The information operations—which have been tied to officers of Russia’s military intelligence agency (GRU)—demonstrate the ongoing threat posed by disinformation ahead of the 2020 U.S. election. Also last week, the House Intelligence Committee voted to allow all House members access to classified evidence of foreign disinformation activities targeting the upcoming presidential election. This decision came after Democratic leaders requested a full House briefing from the FBI on foreign interference efforts aimed at influencing “congressional activity, public debate, and the presidential election in November.” Director Laura Rosenberger and Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman have analyzed the strategies and values democracies can invest in to effectively counter authoritarian efforts to manipulate the information space without compromising democratic freedoms. (The New York Times, Associated Press, CNN, ASD)

Unknown actors use inauthentic personas to launder anti-NATO narratives in European countries: According to a new report from cybersecurity firm FireEye, unknown actors are using inauthentic personas posing as journalists and analysts to spread fabricated content and to publish articles and op-eds critical of NATO in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. In one case, operatives planted fabricated diplomatic documents and then leveraged articles on news sites to spread a false narrative that Canadian soldiers were spreading the coronavirus in Latvia. According to FireEye, the actors behind the operation have not yet been discovered; although, the operation aligns with Russian security interests. The operation comes as experts have expressed concerns about foreign attempts to manipulate journalists and news outlets ahead of the 2020 election. Program Manager and Analyst Bradley Hanlon has noted that malign authoritarian actors often seek to impersonate and solicit coverage from journalists to launder chosen narratives and garner credibility and attention for stolen material. (FireEye, CyberScoop, Nieman Reports, ASD)

Microsoft aims to purchase U.S. operations of TikTok, while Trump Administration weighs broader action against Chinese companies: Following last week’s announcements that the Trump administration is considering banning Chinese video-sharing app TikTok, Microsoft has announced that it is seeking a deal to purchase the U.S. operations for the app. The Trump administration reportedly agreed to give Microsoft 45 days to solidify a deal for the purchase. On August 2, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that—apart from TikTok—the administration plans to announce additional actions to mitigate a “broad array of national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist Party.” Some experts have argued that banning apps like TikTok risks replicating the information control tactics employed by the Chinese Communist Party, and that U.S. officials must find a more nuanced way to balance security with American values. Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina, Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman, and Program Manager and Fellow Nad’a Kovalčíková have noted that TikTok poses a unique challenge to both U.S. and European transparency regimes, which will require a strong understanding of authoritarian information suppression and manipulation. (Vox, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, BBC, The Atlantic, Axios, ASD)

In case you missed it

● Russian hackers are suspected to be behind the theft and leaking of U.S.-U.K. trade documents ahead of Britain’s 2019 election, according to Reuters.

● Google announced that it is banning international advertisers from using ads to promote “illegally hacked or obtained political material,” such as stolen campaign emails.

● The European Union imposed sanctions on Russian and Chinese cybercriminals, implementing for the first time new legal measures that allow Europe to target individuals and entities, rather than states, for cybercrime.

● A volunteer group of trusted cybersecurity professionals will provide local election officials with free cybersecurity services to boost U.S. election security.

● The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a bipartisan report detailing how Russian oligarchs have used high-value art purchases to evade sanctions.

● The European Union will limit the export of “sensitive” technology that could be used for surveillance in Hong Kong as part of a joint response to China’s recently imposed national security law on the region.

● Belarusian authorities announced that 200 Russian mercenaries, disguised as tourists, had planned to disrupt its August presidential election, and have since detained 33 Russian fighters.

● Australia will become the first country to require Facebook and Google to pay for news content provided by media companies.

● Turkey’s parliament passed a bill to regulate social media content, drawing criticism from activists over increasingly strict state control of online platforms.

ASD in the News

Russian Intelligence Agencies Push Disinformation on Pandemic, The New York Times. Comments from Director Laura Rosenberger

Silicon Valley is losing the battle against election misinformation, Politico. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Despite coronavirus complications, experts confident election will be safe and secure, Sinclair Broadcast Group. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

As the November election approaches, are newsrooms ready for Guccifer 3.0?, Nieman Lab. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer and Non-resident Fellow Heidi Tworek

GovExec daily: Election security as November approaches, Government Executive. Interview with Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

Was the Chinese consulate in Houston really a hotbed of economic espionage?, The Intercept. Comments from Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman

GRU on the internet: Operations and their implications during COVID-19, VOA Russia. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

A “better deal”?: GMF experts weigh in on the U.S. troop withdrawal from Germany, GMF. Comments from Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina

China plays the Iran card, Project Syndicate. Written by Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai and Vali Nasr

Quote of the Week

“Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”

– Congressman John Lewis in an op-ed published on the day of his funeral, July 30, 2020

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