Our Take

This summer, ASD convened a group of experts for a simulation to assess how government, social media platforms, and campaigns’ policies and practices have adapted to face foreign interference since 2016. The exercise revealed that while significant steps have been undertaken to improve resilience, major vulnerabilities remain, especially with respect to information sharing between key stakeholders. Research Assistant Nathan Kohlenberg outlines our findings in a new ASD report

Russia’s disinformation tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) have matured to become harder to detect and more targeted since 2016, Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt and Research Assistant Amber Frankland write in a new ASD paper. They identify four broad categories of evolving TTPs: co-opting authentic domestic voices and institutions, “perception hacking,” practicing tailored influence, and laundering a narrative across the full information ecosystem.

Head of External Affairs Rachael Dean Wilson interviews CBS News’ Caitlin Conant and Jennifer De Pinto about how one of the United States’ most prominent broadcast networks is taking on the challenge of covering the 2020 elections in an increasingly complex information environment on GMF’s “Out of Order.” 

View our work on the 2020 U.S. elections here

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian state media extensively covered the New York Post’s publication of unverified personal materials from a laptop allegedly owned by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son. In total, RT and Sputnik’s English-language websites have run more than 20 articles covering the allegations made by the Post, with one commentator calling it the “biggest political story in his lifetime” and another labelling it a “disaster for Joe.” But the primary narrative—which is consistently pedaled by Russian state media—centered on claims of censorship, political bias, Russophobia, and complicity on the part of the media and major social media platforms. Chinese state media and diplomats last week promoted China’s success in combating the coronavirus and celebrations over the “economic miracle” in Shenzhen on the 40th anniversary of the establishment of a special economic zone there. At the same time, Chinese diplomats took their usual shots at the United States, with foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeting out a set of facts to prove “the US is the gravest threat to global strategic security.” On the Iran dashboard, Supreme Leader Khamenei criticized U.S. sanctions on Iran as criminal, castigated the United States for its support of Israel, and generally cast Washington as criminal and out of control. Saeed Khatibzadeh, head of public diplomacy for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also called out President Trump for retweeting “wild conspiracy theories” proffered by Heshmat Alavi, an anti-regime Twitter personality generally associated with the MEK, an anti-regime Iranian group described by Iran as a political party, a cult, and a terrorist organization. 

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News and Commentary

Social media platforms take steps to limit the spread of unverified story: On October 14, Facebook and Twitter took action to reduce the spread of a New York Post article that included unsubstantiated claims of misconduct by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son. The article relied in part on information reportedly provided by President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, who the U.S. intelligence community previously warned was the target of a Russian influence operation. Hours after the article was published, Facebook slowed sharing of the story pending fact-checker review, citing its standard process to limit the spread of misinformation. Twitter blocked users from sharing the article completely, referring to its standards on hacked material and posting of personal and private information. Twitter also locked the accounts of those promoting the article, including journalists and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, drawing charges of bias and censorship from conservatives and free speech activists. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, later said the company had mishandled its response to the article and stated that the platform would adjust its Hacked Materials Policy. Under the new policy, Twitter will not remove hacked content unless it is “directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them,” and will instead add labels to such content. Meanwhile, the FBI opened an investigation into whether the New York Post article contained information connected to an ongoing Russian disinformation effort to undermine the Biden campaign. ASD’s Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer has argued that social media platforms only have bad options when hacked or dubious information is published by a known U.S. entity; platforms can let the information spread, or they can reduce its reach and get accused of censorship, but either decision sets in motion a narrative that plays to the benefit of those running the operation. (BBC, The Washington Post, Twitter, The New York Times, Politico, CNN, The Treasury Department, New York Daily News)

White House releases plan to invest in and secure emerging technologies: On October 15, the Trump administration released the National Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies, which provides a blueprint for greater coordination across federal agencies in the development and protection of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and communication and networking technologies. The strategy seeks to leverage the private sector to advance U.S. innovation, emphasizes the need for U.S. leadership on the development of international standards around emerging technologies, and underscores the need to defend against illicit methods used by Russia and China to acquire and take advantage of U.S. technologies. On October 19, the Cyberspace Solarium Commission released a white paper that recommends steps that Congress can take to increase investment in critical technology manufacturing hubs and foster viable alternatives to Chinese telecoms firms such as Huawei. ASD Emerging Technology Fellow Lindsay Gorman has argued that democracies need to put forward a collective vision for the future of the Internet and emerging technologies that outcompetes the alternative models offered by Russia and China. (The White House, The Washington Post, Politico, Defense One)

In Case You Missed It

  • The Department of Justice charged six Russian intelligence officers in connection with some of the world’s most disruptive cyberattacks, including malware attacks on Ukraine’s power grid and hack-and-leak operations during the 2017 French elections. 
  • Facebook said it has rejected 2.2 million ads and removed 120,000 posts for attempting to “obstruct voting” in the U.S. presidential election.
  • Google announced it continues to see Iranian and Chinese state-backed cyberattacks directed at individuals and campaigns involved in the upcoming election, though none of the attacks have been successful. 
  • Microsoft disrupted but did not alter the capability of a botnet that it feared could impact election-reporting systems, according to multiple threat assessment companies. 
  • Twitter removed a network of fake accounts claiming to be owned by Black supporters of President Trump for violating the platform’s policies on spam and platform manipulation. 
  • Chinese government officials warned that they may detain U.S. nationals in China in response to the U.S. prosecution of Chinese scholars who did not disclose their Chinese-military affiliations while researching in the United States. 
  • Sweden banned Chinese telecoms companies Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment for the country’s 5G network. 
  • Over 40 members of the European Parliament signed a letter that labeled Chinese 5G vendors Huawei and ZTE as “high risk” companies that pose threats to network security in Europe.
  • The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States blocked a Chinese entity from purchasing a fertility clinic in California, citing concerns about Chinese access to U.S. medical data. 
  • Norway has assessed that Russia was behind a cyberattack on the Norwegian parliament’s email system in August. 

ASD in the News

The hack-and-leak conundrum: There’s no good way to combat the latest form of dirty trick, New York Daily News. Written by Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

U.S. elections early voting, BBC World News. Interview with Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

Smart Talk Monday: Foreign interference in the election, WITF. Interview with Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt

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

Election 2020: How to stop the spread of misinformation & disinformation, WFLA Tampa. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Social media enters perilous waters with Biden article block, AFP. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Facebook and Twitter’s no-win situation over Biden, MIT Technology Review. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Why Microsoft’s Trickbot crackdown shows 2020 election security is improving, The Fulcrum. Interview with Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine 

Posting illegal ballot selfies, NBC New York. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine 

Trump thinks ‘maximum pressure’ will change Iran. History says he’s wrong, The Washington Post. Written by Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai and Philip H. Gordon

Disinformation in 2020, new techniques, new worries, The Fulcrum. Highlights ASD research

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

Voter fraud in the US will be extremely rare, says expert, MENAFN. 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 

Quote of the Week

“Disinformation is a threat to democracy, no matter what political party it benefits or whether it is foreign or domestic in its source, and it is long past due that the United States began to address this challenge to the very foundation of our country and its values.” 

Wilson Center Disinformation Fellow Nina Jankowicz said in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

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