Is the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran working? Tune in for GMF’s 30-minute live snap debate with Richard Nephew and Mark Dubowitz, moderated by ASD Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai, on Thursday, October 15 at 11:00am EDT/5:00pm CEST.

Our Take

As countries’ authorities and election management bodies make changes to their election processes in response to the coronavirus, they must carefully consider the election security risks such changes introduce and ensure that elections carried out during the pandemic are accessible, secure, and legitimate, Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine and International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ Director for Europe and Eurasia Beata Martin-Rozumiłowicz write in their new report. The report was highlighted in The Fulcrum.

Russian, Chinese, and Iranian government-controlled media outlets used the recent presidential and vice presidential debates as opportunities to depict the U.S. political system as deeply dysfunctional, Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer and Research Assistants Amber Frankland, Nathan Kohlenberg, and Etienne Soula write in the latest Hamilton analysis blog post

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Last week, Russian and Iranian diplomatic and state media accounts primarily focused on regional issues, while Chinese accounts and outlets concentrated on U.S.-China disputes as well as President Trump’s coronavirus recovery. Russian state media and diplomats provided substantial coverage of the violent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and protests in Kyrgyzstan following disputed (since-annulled) parliamentary elections. Russian state media also continued to amplify concerns over election security and voter fraud in the United States. On the China dashboard, China’s ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson, Hua Chunying, produced the three most engaged-with tweets of the week, which criticized American racism, handling of the coronavirus, and failures in foreign policy. In addition, President Trump’s diagnosis and seeming recovery from the coronavirus received significant coverage. On the Iran dashboard, Tehran-linked social media accounts blamed U.S. sanctions for impairing the country’s coronavirus response. Iranian accounts were also active in covering developments in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, with most coverage framing Iran as a regional power-broker eager to help both sides reach a solution. 

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News and Commentary

Government agencies highlight threats, aim to build trust as 2020 election nears: On October 6, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released its 2020 Threat Assessment, which details the largest threats facing the United States. The report highlights the challenge that foreign interference poses to the country, identifying Russia as the “primary covert influence actor and purveyor of disinformation and misinformation within the Homeland.” On the same day, DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) released a joint video highlighting their efforts and commitment to protecting the integrity of the 2020 election. Later last week, NCSC director Bill Evanina also sought to assure the public of the transparency and accuracy of intelligence reporting around the election. Evanina stated that he would resign if asked to manipulate intelligence, a comment made following prior allegations that the White House has politicized intelligence to mislead voters in the lead-up to the election. Evanina also noted that domestic political actors’ efforts to undermine public confidence in the security and accuracy of the election are being amplified by foreign adversaries. ASD Director Laura Rosenberger and Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman have argued that democracies can build resilience against foreign interference by publicly exposing and addressing authoritarian interference operations. (DHS, FBI, ABC News, CNN, The Washington Quarterly)

Social media platforms roll out new policies to combat election related disinformation: On October 9, Twitter announced a series of wide-ranging measures aimed at limiting the spread of misinformation and disinformation in the final weeks before the presidential election. Under the new policies, Twitter will label tweets that falsely claim victory for any candidate, remove content that encourages violence or calls for interference in the voting process, warn users when they attempt to share information that Twitter has flagged as false, and disable the feature that suggests posts based on users’ interests. On October 7, Facebook said it will label posts from candidates that prematurely claim a win, temporarily suspend all political advertising after polls close on November 3, and remove calls for poll monitoring if they include militaristic or intimidating language. Also last week, Facebook and Twitter removed over a dozen disinformation networks operated by political and state-backed groups that targeted the United States and a range of countries around the world. ASD Director Laura Rosenberger applauded Twitter’s efforts, citing further need for companies to rethink platform architecture and how information moves on their sites in order to take a more systematic approach to tackle disinformation. (Twitter, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters, Twitter) 

Department of Justice takes down global disinformation campaign linked to Iran: On October 7, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it had seized 92 web domains used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to spread disinformation to audiences in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The domains posed as independent news outlets in an attempt to influence public opinion and foreign policy toward Iran and the Middle East. The federal investigation into the domains was initiated by information that Google provided to the FBI and was conducted as a collaborative effort between the FBI, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, according to the DOJ’s statement. On September 30, Twitter stated that it removed nearly 130 accounts tied to Iran that were attempting to disrupt public conversation during the first presidential debate. ASD Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai has argued that in recent years Iran has increased efforts to create, spread, and amplify content favorable to its interests in the United States, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. (Department of Justice, Reuters, The Hill, ASD) 

In Case You Missed It

  • Microsoft took action to disrupt a Russian criminal botnet that could have indirectly impacted election infrastructure. 
  • Americans are engaging more with news sites that regularly publish misinformation on Facebook than they did in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, according to research by GMF Digital. 
  • The U.K. Parliament announced that it discovered evidence that Chinese telecoms equipment provider Huawei had colluded with the Chinese state. 
  • The Department of Defense designated $600 million toward 5G wireless testing and experimentation at five U.S. military sites. 
  • The U.S. House Intelligence Subcommittee on Strategic Technologies and Advanced Research issued a report that called for the intelligence community to increase investments in science and technology innovation efforts. 
  • Social media sites Parler and Gab continue to host accounts linked to a Russian disinformation campaign that has been removed from mainstream social media platforms. 
  • Belgian telecom companies have selected Nokia to help build the country’s 5G networks, dropping Chinese firm Huawei as a telecoms equipment supplier.  

ASD in the News

Alarm grows over Trump team’s efforts to monitor polls, The Hill. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine 

Facebook blocks Russia-backed accounts, but other sites keep churning out content aimed at Americans, NBC News. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer and Non-Resident Fellow Clint Watts

How Russia Today skirts high-tech blockade to reach U.S. readers, The Wall Street Journal. Comments from Non-Resident Fellow Clint Watts

What U.S.-Russia Talks on Election Meddling Say About the Kremlin’s Shifting Strategy, TIME. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Election security and potential foreign threats to the 2020 election, This Week in South Carolina. Interview with Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine 

Expert says US election’s system resilient amid fear of cyberattacks, Saudi Gazette. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine 

Expert stresses need for election resiliency as “foreign adversaries” try to interfere in US polls, ABS-CBN News. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine 

What you can do about election disinformation, WBHM. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Disinformation has neighbors fighting in small-town America, Bloomberg. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Combatting disinformation and misinformation in elections, CISA. Virtual event with Director Laura Rosenberger and Non-Resident Fellow Clint Watts 

Here’s where overseas and military voters can return their ballots using the internet, Business Insider. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

Six disinformation threats in the post-election period, Just Security. Comments from Director Laura Rosenberger

The states where you can and can’t post a “ballot selfie” on social media, Business Insider. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine 

Cotton: U.S. should make explicit commitment to defend Taiwan from China, Washington Free Beacon. Comments from Director Zack Cooper

Quote of the Week

“The vote isn’t done until the election is certified by that state’s chief election official, which often comes several weeks after the election. Even the unofficial results might not be available on election night in some places, including in crucial swing states, so we may not have results on election night. We encourage people to not be concerned about that. That is normal. It doesn’t mean the process has been compromised; it means the system is working.”

Brandon Wales, executive director at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said in an interview with MIT Technology Review.

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