Our Take

Germany’s efforts to defend its September elections from foreign interference, particularly stemming from Russia, will be important to watch this year, Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine writes in a GMF blog post.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian state media provided substantial breaking news coverage of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Prominent themes included the idea that the United States is no longer, or never was, a global model for democracy and criticism of U.S. democracy promotion abroad. Russian state media also covered claims of censorship related to social media platforms’ steps toward de-platforming President Trump. State-media also overinflated and then criticized supposed claims of foreign influence in the riot. Finally, Russian state media highlighted negative stories about the Pfizer vaccine while claiming politicization negatively affected the reception of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

Chinese state media, including CGTN, CGTN America, People’s Daily, Xinhua, and China Daily, delivered almost minute by minute coverage of the attack on the Capitol, with the most viewed Chinese state media video from last week showing the moment where a Trump supporter was shot by Capitol Police. As with the Black Lives Matter protests, the central narrative in China’s coverage was the alleged hypocrisy of American coverage of domestic unrest versus coverage of protests abroad, especially those in Hong Kong. Surprisingly, the most-engaged with tweet on the China dashboard last week was not about the riot at the Capitol, but instead a tweet (now deleted by Twitter) from the Chinese embassy in the United States promoting Beijing’s oppressive policies in Xinjiang and passing them off as emancipation.

On the Iran dashboard, coverage of the attack on the Capitol and its aftermath was largely factual, though the tone was somewhat gleeful. PressTV ran footage of American journalists in Washington, D.C. reminding viewers that they were at the Capitol, not in Baghdad or Kabul, before pivoting to criticism of American interventionism in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader announced on Twitter a ban on vaccine imports from Britain, France, and the United States, claiming, “it is not unlikely that they want to pollute other people.” The tweet was subsequently removed by Twitter for violating its vaccine misinformation policy.

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News and Commentary

U.S. intelligence agencies attribute SolarWinds hack to Russia, new details emerge: On January 5, the FBI, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security Agency released a joint statement that asserted Russia was likely responsible for the far-reaching hack of U.S. federal agencies, private corporations, and infrastructure that was launched by exploiting vulnerabilities in a widely-used product made by the company SolarWinds. The agencies emphasized their belief that the breach represents an ongoing intelligence gathering effort rather than an operation designed to disable or destroy compromised systems. An investigation by the cybersecurity firm Kaspersky found that the malware used to compromise SolarWinds’ software resembled malicious code linked to a hacking group associated with Russia’s FSB intelligence service. On January 8, the Department of Homeland Security published an advisory stating that the hackers were able to monitor high-value intelligence targets for months by giving themselves top administrative privileges. Meanwhile, federal judiciary officials said the electronic filing system used by federal courts was likely compromised and the Department of Justice stated that its email system had been breached. Over a half dozen U.S. federal agencies have acknowledged that their servers were impacted as part of the operation. ASD Program Assistant Joseph Bodnar and Program Manager and Analyst Bradley Hanlon have argued that while the SolarWinds hack appears to be a case of cyber espionage, it reveals shortcomings in detection, supply chain security, and prevention that threaten the United States’ ability to defend against foreign interference in cyberspace.

U.S. political appointees and intelligence analysts diverge assessing foreign interference in 2020 election: On January 6, the Intelligence Community Analytical Ombudsman sent a letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence detailing a divergence of views between political appointees and career intelligence analysts regarding the extent to which Russia and China sought to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. The letter notes that China analysts “appeared hesitant to assess China’s actions as undue influence or interference” and were worried their conclusions would be misrepresented, while statements by the Director of National Intelligence asserted that China was expanding its influence operations in the lead-up to the election. Additionally, Russia analysts found that intelligence community management delayed relaying “clear and credible evidence” of Russian interference to decision makers. As a result, the ombudsman identified dissonance between the intelligence community’s assessments and public statements. The letter concludes by noting there is “an ongoing and widespread perception” in the intelligence community that politicization has led to a “loss of analytical objectivity … on the topics of Russian and Chinese election influence and interference.” ASD Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt has argued that the politicization of election security impedes the United States from taking necessary steps to defend against foreign interference.

Tech companies take action following violence at the U.S. Capitol: A range of tech companies have implemented policies to reduce the spread of disinformation and hate speech following the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Twitter announced that it will permanently ban President Trump from the platform “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” and removed the accounts of several prominent pro-Trump commentators who used the platform to spread conspiracy theories. Facebook also barred President Trump from posting until at least the transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden is completed on January 20. YouTube, Snapchat, Reddit, and Twitch similarly limited President Trump’s use of their services. Meanwhile, Apple and Google removed the social media platform Parler, which has become popular among far right groups, from their stores for smartphone downloads. Amazon also suspended Parler from its web-hosting service, citing the platform’s lax content moderation policies as a violation of its terms of service. An ASD task force report argues that the United States government should facilitate greater information sharing with tech companies and researchers to ensure disinformation operations are quickly identified and taken off social media platforms.

In Case You Missed It

  • The Treasury Department imposed sanctions against seven individuals and several entities connected to a foreign influence network associated with Russian agent Andrii Derkach.
  • The FBI is investigating a Russia-linked postcard that was sent to the CEO of the cybersecurity firm FireEye days after the company uncovered evidence of a Russian hacking operation that impacted dozens of U.S. federal agencies and companies.
  • The Hong Kong police arrested dozens of pro-democracy activists and officials for their involvement in legislative elections, and the city’s biggest telecom companies have blocked access to a website created by activists that listed information on police officers.
  • The Chinese government is paying prominent British YouTube vloggers to produce pro-China propaganda videos, according to an investigation by The Sunday Times.
  • The State Department announced the creation of the Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies Bureau, which will lead U.S. diplomatic efforts on technology issues.
  • President Trump signed an executive order banning transactions with eight Chinese software applications, including the popular apps Alipay and WeChat Pay.
  • The New York Stock Exchange will delist three Chinese telecoms to comply with a White House order barring U.S. investments in firms linked to the Chinese military.
  • The theft of documents and electronic devices during the violent storming of the Capitol on January 6 created potential national security and intelligence risks.

ASD in the News

Big Tech Moderation Crackdown Gives Parler, Gab A Surge of Users. Newsy, Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer.

Trump supporters organized the Capitol riot online, The Hill, Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer.

Despite unprecedented challenges, Georgia’s long election proved resilient. The Fulcrum, Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine.

Expert calls for vigilance until Biden’s presidential inauguration. RTP News, Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine.

Iran Begins Enriching Uranium to 20% Purity. The Wall Street Journal, Comments from Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai.

Quote of the Week

“While our tools and techniques have certainly improved and we have increased our capabilities to address sophisticated Russian hackers, SolarWinds demonstrates that we are not good enough. We were prepared for tactics we knew, but we were unprepared for the innovation of the adversary and the novel tools used.”

  • Kiersten Todt, the former executive director of the Presidential Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity, told the Washington Post.
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.