Our Take

In a joint report with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer finds numerous similarities in the behavior, narratives, and specific messages promoted by a network of hundreds of thousands of pro-Chinese Communist Party Twitter accounts and official CCP accounts that are tracked on the Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard. CNN also covered the report.

China, Russia, and Iran have employed five main messaging frames worldwide to shape public discourse on coronavirus in an effort to rehabilitate the regimes’ images, seed doubt about the virus’ origins, shift the blame, highlight failures in democracies, and promote authoritarianism, Fellow and Program Manager Nad’a Kovalčíková and Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai explain in a new report.

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

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

The top covered issue on Hamilton 2.0 last week was the explosion in Beirut. Coverage of the explosion was substantial enough to break through the coronavirus news cycle, reflected in the fact that #Beirut was the third most-used hashtag by Russian, Iranian, and Chinese state media and government accounts last week, despite that the explosion occurred mid-way through the week. Russian government, diplomatic, and state media accounts highlighted Russia’s humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, and Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polanskiy posted a characteristically aggressive tweet calling on the United States to end sanctions on Lebanon. Iranian government and state media also provided extensive coverage of the blast, with the former offering condolences and the latter criticizing Israel’s response to the tragedy and pushing conspiracy theories about possible U.S. and/or Israeli involvement in subsequent protests. Apart from the explosion, tech policy developments also generated substantial coverage, with Russian government officials and state-funded media criticizing Twitter’s decision to label all government and state media accounts. Chinese state-funded media and government officials directed their ire at President Trump’s executive order to effectively ban TikTok from the U.S. market, calling the decision “undemocratic” and evidence of the U.S. using national security concerns to advance “economic imperialism” (this topic is discussed in detail in a recent ASD blog post). Finally, Russia continued to tout its successes in developing a coronavirus vaccine, which coincided with a disinformation campaign in pro-Kremlin media that falsely claimed that four Ukrainians had died after taking a U.S.-made coronavirus vaccine.

Read more here.

News and Commentary

U.S. intelligence reports election interference threats from China, Russia, and Iran: On August 7, National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina delivered a public statement outlining ongoing and potential interference threats from China, Russia, and Iran to the 2020 election. Evanina stated that Russia is using “a range of measures” to denigrate Democrat Joe Biden, including spreading claims of corruption and boosting President Donald Trump on social media. Specifically, he noted that Russia is using Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russia member of Ukraine’s Parliament, to publicize leaked phone calls to help undermine Biden’s candidacy. Intelligence officials briefed Congress on Derkach’s activities earlier this month, leading several senators to call for regular briefings from FBI Director Christopher Wray, citing specific concerns that foreign sources were seeking to use Congress as a vector for interference. In his statement, Evanina also noted that China “prefers that President Trump … does not win reelection,” citing the Chinese government’s increasingly critical public rhetoric of the Trump administration, but notably Evanina did not indicate that Beijing is using measures to act on this preference as Russia is. Finally, Evanina noted that Iran will likely engage in online influence campaigns ahead of the election to undermine U.S. democratic institutions and President Trump. Evanina’s most recent statement followed extensive criticism from Democrats of his July 24 announcement, which Democratic leaders said “fail[ed] to fully delineate the goal, nature, scope and capacity” of interference efforts targeting the election. In reaction to the new statement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff argued that Evanina inaccurately portrayed China, Russia, and Iran as equal threats to the election. Director Laura Rosenberger argued in her testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee that publicly exposing foreign interference efforts is essential to help inoculate citizens and build resilience to such attacks. (CyberScoop, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, The New York Times, Politico, The Hill, ASD).

Government, non-profits, and private sector ramp up efforts to protect election systems ahead of U.S. election: The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), in partnership with the Center for Internet Security, is distributing software to detect malicious activity to election officials around the country. CISA has deployed software to election offices in 30 states so far and expects to expand the program to nine more states by November. Outside of government, the Global Cyber Alliance, an international organization dedicated to reducing cyber risk, has launched a “Cybersecurity Toolkit for Elections,” which provides free tools to help local election offices and communities improve resilience to potential threats. Additionally, Election Systems & Software LLC (ES&S), the top U.S. seller of voting-machine technology, has announced a new vulnerability disclosure policy for external security researchers, following prior reluctance to allow outside security experts to test its systems. Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine has argued that, while the security of U.S. election infrastructure has improved since 2016, such testing has tremendous value in identifying and mitigating potential vulnerabilities. (The Washington Post, Global Cyber Alliance, State Department, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, ASD).

Social media companies launch new transparency measures and crack down on disinformation: Last week, Twitter, Google, and Facebook all took action to crack down on disinformation and potential foreign interference on their platforms. On August 6, Twitter launched new labels for government and state-affiliated media accounts to increase transparency and inform users about accounts that are beholden to government support or editorial control, including RT, Sputnik, People’s Daily, and CGTN. Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced new policies as well, including a fact-checking feature that allows users to easily search for information on forwarded messages that have not been sent by a close contact. Facebook and Google also took action last week to remove inauthentic behavior from their platforms. Facebook disabled a small network of Romanian accounts that were impersonating pro-Trump Americans, while Google announced that it deleted 2,500 YouTube channels as part of its ongoing investigation into China’s “coordinated influence operations.” Program Manager and Analyst Bradley Hanlon has noted that social media companies should prioritize informing and empowering users to safely consume and share information in order to insulate their platforms from foreign interference. (Twitter, The Guardian, WhatsApp, The Washington Post, ASD)

In case you missed it

  • The Chinese government announced sanctions on 11 U.S. citizens, including four senators and several leaders of pro-democracy organizations, in response to U.S. sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials.
  • President Trump issued executive orders last week that will prohibit transactions in 45 days with Chinese companies WeChat and ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok.
  • The U.S. State Department released a new report detailing the tactics that the Russian government and its proxies use to disseminate disinformation.
  • The U.S. State Department launched a “Rewards for Justice” program, which offers up to a $10 million reward for information about foreign government-linked hackers targeting U.S. elections.
  • Snapchat announced the introduction of new features to help prepare users to vote in the 2020 election, including in-app voter registration.
  • Senior Republican and Democratic lawmakers urged the Trump administration to release a funding hold on the Open Technology Fund, a U.S. internet freedom organization that provides tools for uncensored internet access to people living under authoritarian regimes.

ASD in the News

Laura Rosenberger: Open v closed? Securing democracy from misinformation and foreign interference, “Diplomates” podcast. Interview with Director Laura Rosenberger

TikTok to sue Trump administration over ban, as soon as Tuesday, NPR. Comments from Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman

As Trump digs in, will it be US versus China in tech?, Associated Press. Comments from Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman

TikTok finds safe haven in Europe, Politico. Comments from Fellow and Program Manager Nad’a Kovalčíková

The disinformation campaign aimed at mail-in voting, Ark Valley Voice. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

Pro-Russia vaccine misinform finds home in US Facebook groups, Associated Press. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Experts warn mail-in voting misinformation could threaten elections, The Hill. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

Federal program offers new cybersecurity tool for elections, Associated Press. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

US lawmakers grapple with how to fund elections amid global pandemic, Spectrum News 9. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

States need federal help to ensure smooth election, House panel is told, Bloomberg. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

Election experts warn Congress about widespread disenfranchisement of voters of color in November, The New York Times. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

Experts assure House panel of US election security improvements, WTOP. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

National security podcast: digital trust and the cost of cyber failure, Asia and the Pacific Policy Society. Comments from Non-resident Fellow Katherine Mansted

“Ein inakzeptabler Angriff” (“An unacceptable attack”), Wirtschafts Woche, Comments from Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina

On A-bomb question, U.S. and Japan should look forward, not back, Inside Sources. Written by Co-director Zack Cooper

Nuclear decision-making in Iran: Implications for US nonproliferation efforts, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, Written by Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai

Quote of the Week

“One of the best tools our election officials and the American people have to help defend against election interference is transparency on the risks to elections.”

  • Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Christopher Krebs, statement on August 7, 2020.
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.