Announcements

In the most comprehensive global study to date of how covert foreign money is used to interfere in democracies, Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph and Research Assistant Thomas Morley track over 100 cases of malign financial interference in democracies from the past decade. The authors identify seven legal loopholes that currently expose democratic institutions and processes in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere to exploitation by authoritarian regimes like Russia and China—loopholes that must be urgently addressed. The report was covered in Foreign Policy

The Alliance for Securing Democracy is proud to partner with the National Association of Secretaries of State to promote its #TrustedInfo2020 initiative, a year-long education effort to drive voters to credible sources of election information, so they know when, where, and how to vote. Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine explains the importance of this partnership in an ASD blog post.

Our Take

Given the well-documented pattern of voter disenfranchisement in Black communities in the United States, elected officials and leaders must commit to stop the spread of disinformation and ensure that all eligible Americans are free to safely vote, Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine and Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer write in the National Urban League’s annual State of Black America report

The United States needs to reframe the conversation about how to deal with data protection challenges in ways that do not play into the autocratic internet framework that authoritarian regimes like Russia and China promote, Director Laura Rosenberger said on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ “Deep Dish” podcast

Last week, Russian state media and government officials touted Russia’s “Sputnik V” coronavirus vaccine as a “breakthrough,” promoted the image of Russia as a savior, and decried the West’s supposed Russophobia, according to Research Assistant Amber Frankland’s analysis of Hamilton 2.0 data

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

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Iranian, Russian, and Chinese state media and government accounts focused on an array of major developments last week. Iranian accounts continued to cover the aftermath of the Beirut explosion—including continued accusations of U.S. and Israeli involvement in the explosion itself and in the protests that followed. Following the announcement of the UAE and Israel’s peace deal, Iranian accounts also leveled heavy criticism of the deal and amplified additional outside criticism. Russian state media and government accounts continued to closely follow the protests in Belarus, at times adopting contradictory coverage with foreign language coverage focusing on viral imagery of police brutality and Russian-language coverage noting accusations that external actors were responsible for fomenting the protests. Russian accounts also heavily celebrated the August 11 announcement that the Russian government had approved a coronavirus vaccine, focusing on it being the “world’s first.” Chinese state media accounts also noted the Russian vaccine announcement with significant coverage. However, Chinese government and media accounts most heavily focused on the ongoing tech conflict between the United States and China. Chinese government officials tweeted numerous criticisms of the Trump Administration’s “Clean Network” program, while state media detailed increased tensions over TikTok and WeChat.

Read more here.

News and Commentary

Senate Intelligence Committee Releases Final Report from Russia Investigation: On August 18, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the fifth and final volume of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The bipartisan investigation concluded that the “Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multifaceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.” The report, which focuses on the counterintelligence threats posed by the Russian operation, states that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort hired and worked closely with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian intelligence officer who may be connected to the GRU hack-and-leak operations that targeted the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton Campaign during the 2016 election. The report also found that Wikileaks, the group that published hacked emails from the DNC, “likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort,” and lays out evidence that Roger Stone, a close associate to President Trump, kept tabs on Wikileaks’ effort. In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2018, ASD Director Laura Rosenberger argued that Congress has an important role to play in exposing and deterring foreign interference in the United States’ democratic institutions and processes. (Senate Intelligence Committee, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ASD) 

New authoritarian information operations emerge in the lead up to the 2020 election: Reporting last week revealed information operations linked to Russian, Chinese, and Iranian networks targeting U.S. audiences over recent months. On August 11, The New York Times exposed how a video from a Russian government-controlled media outlet went viral earlier this month, drawing reactions from U.S. media outlets and political figures. Russian video news agency Ruptly edited, decontextualized, and amplified coverage of the video—which showed two protesters in Portland burning a Bible alongside notebooks and newspapers—in order to stoke partisan tension and drive media coverage of the incident. Also last week, social media analysis company Graphika exposed a pro-Chinese network of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts that spread English-language videos critical of President Trump. Interestingly, the network used AI-generated profile pictures to create inauthentic accounts to share the videos. Twitter also suspended a verified account impersonating a top World Health Organization official, citing possible links to an Iranian disinformation group. ASD Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Shafer has warned that malign actors often continuously share videos and articles in an attempt to be picked up, amplified, and legitimized by mainstream news outlets. (Twitter, The New York Times, Graphika, The Washington Post, CyberScoop, ASD)

Tech companies ramp up counter-disinformation efforts ahead of election: On August 12, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and several other tech firms announced plans to collaborate with government agencies to share insights on disinformation campaigns and deceptive behavior across their platforms. As part of this effort, the companies met with representatives from the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Department of Homeland Security last week. Facebook also announced that it will begin labeling all voting-related posts with a link to its new voting information center. Google launched a similar feature to allow users to find voting information based on their search location, and announced that the company is updating its political ads transparency report to include more information about paid ads on its platforms. Finally, Twitter announced plans to broaden its policies to combat misinformation about mail-in ballots from spreading on its platform. ASD Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt has argued that coordination between tech platforms, the federal government, and state and local officials is necessary to prepare the information space for the onslaught of disinformation that will likely result from coronavirus-related changes to the election. (The New York Times, NBC News, The Hill, Politico, Axios, ASD) 

In Case You Missed It

  • The U.K. government is considering a law that would require online political campaign content to carry labels disclosing who is promoting and funding the messaging.
  • The U.S. State Department designated Confucius Institutes, Chinese government–funded language and cultural centers, as foreign missions of the Chinese Communist Party. 
  • The NSA and FBI exposed that hackers from Russia’s military intelligence unit created malware to break into Linux systems widely used by the U.S. defense industry. 
  • Google announced that it will stop directly cooperating with Hong Kong authorities on data requests and will now treat the territory the same as mainland China. 
  • TikTok tracked user data using a tactic that violated Google’s privacy policies, according to The Wall Street Journal.
  • The Chinese tech company ByteDance censored content it viewed as critical of the Chinese government on its news app in Indonesia from 2018 to mid-2020. 
  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security successfully completed a simulated cyberattack that tested the protections of key industries including health care and manufacturing.
  • The US Commerce Department announced new sanctions on Huawei as it ramped up its efforts to prevent the Chinese tech giant from accessing American technology.

ASD in the News

Trump, TikTok and a dangerous precedent for democracy, CNN. Comments from Director Laura Rosenberger

A Bible Burning, a Russian News Agency and a Story Too Good to Check Out, The New York Times. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Video: Focus: TikTok and data protection, Das Erste. Comments from Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman 

Election experts tell Congress more federal funding is needed, San Jose Spotlight. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine 

The American blog pushing Xinjiang denialism, Axios. Cites Hamilton 2.0 data and comments from Director Laura Rosenberger 

Menaces américaines sur un port allemande (American threats to a German port), Le Figaro. Comments from Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina

Australia’s cyber security strategy, Asia & the Pacific Policy Society (August 12, 2020). Hosted by Non-resident Fellow Katherine Mansted

 

Quote of the Week

“America’s cybersecurity strategy cannot occur at only the federal level – if we are to take the necessary steps to protect our people and our data, each layer of our government must be prepared for cyber threats.” 

  • Senator Angus King (I-ME) in press release announcing the introduction of the State and Local IT Modernization and Cybersecurity Act, August 13, 2020
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.