Our Take

Russia, China, and Iran have been carrying out information operations to manipulate narratives around coronavirus vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. In a new report, we analyze more than 35,000 vaccine-related messages captured on our Hamilton 2.0 dashboard to understand the impact of these operations. The report was covered in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post’s Cyber 202 and Tech 202, USA Today, CNN, The Week, and Barron’s.

Giving more people a reasonable opportunity to view the electoral process would be a good first step toward promoting voter confidence in democratic elections, Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine writes in GW’s International Law and Policy Brief.

Follow ASD on Twitter for more quick takes at @SecureDemocracy.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Last week, Russian messaging highlighted interest in the Sputnik V vaccine from EU member states, local politicians, and citizens. State media and diplomats continued to tout positive stories about Russian vaccines, while emphasizing adverse reactions and other issues surrounding non-Russian vaccines. Meanwhile, Russian state media and diplomats predictably characterized new U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia over Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment as an effort to interfere in the country’s domestic affairs.

Chinese officials and state media last week continued to defend their government’s policies in Xinjiang by attacking the credibility of those who have reported on China’s human rights abuses  and criticizing the United States and other democracies’ over their human rights records. Chinese officials and state media also framed the upcoming electoral reform that Beijing plans to impose on Hong Kong as a move to put “patriotsback in control. Although less prominent than the other two topics, Chinese vaccine diplomacy continued last week, with the key narratives largely echoing those covered in ASD’s recent report on China’s vaccine messaging.

On the Iran dashboard, the Iran nuclear deal was again the dominant topic promoted by regime-linked Twitter accounts, with tweets from the supreme leader and the foreign minister among the most widely circulated. This diplomatic full-court press was fully supported by the regime-backed media, with eager reporting on every repetition of the regime’s position. PressTV took a slightly different angle, as they highlighted pressure from American progressives in favor of the Biden administration lifting sanctions against Iran immediately. Iranian officials remained surprisingly silent on the U.S. strike against Tehran-backed militias in Syria last month.

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News and Commentary

President Biden issues national security guidance to strengthen democracy, counter China: On March 3, President Biden released an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance that emphasizes the importance of strengthening U.S. democratic institutions and working with partners and allies to counter authoritarian powers. The guidance, which sets priorities for federal departments and agencies, names China as the central threat to democratic rules, norms, and institutions. The report calls on the United States to address inequality, systemic racism, and other challenges to democracy to build resilience against authoritarian disinformation and strategic corruption campaigns. Finally, the guidance elevates cybersecurity to a top priority and states that U.S. technological leadership and partnerships are critical to ensuring emerging technologies benefit democracy rather than autocracy. An ASD task force report outlines a strategy for the United States to push back on recent autocratic advances by cooperating with democratic allies and leveraging the principles of openness, transparency, and responsive governance.

Biden administration prepares response to Russian, Chinese cyber campaigns: President Biden is expected to impose sanctions and conduct a series of covert operations targeting Russia over the next three weeks in retaliation for Moscow’s malign cyber activities, including the SolarWinds hack, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is reportedly considering retaliatory actions against China for a Beijing-linked hacking campaign that exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s servers. Security experts estimate that around 30,000 systems were affected by the hack, including U.S. government agencies. On March 3, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued an emergency directive ordering federal agencies to patch or disconnect their systems from the Microsoft application that had been breached. Moreover, President Biden is anticipated to move forward with an executive order directing software providers to increase the security of their products. ASD Program Assistant Joe Bodnar and Program Manager and Analyst Brad Hanlon have argued that the U.S. government should implement stronger security standards for technology procurement to better protect U.S. infrastructure and institutions against foreign interference.

Saudi-based Twitter accounts launch campaign to discredit U.S. intel report: A network of inauthentic Saudi-based Twitter accounts targeted both U.S. and Saudi audiences in an influence campaign intended to discredit a U.S. intelligence report that concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The information operation was in part directed at U.S. media organizations and posted repetitive, pro-Saudi comments on tweets about the report by outlets including the Washington Post, CNN, and Bloomberg News. Targeting Saudi audiences, the operation used thousands of Twitter accounts to cast doubt on the report’s conclusions, sharing posts that used two different misspellings of Khashoggi’s name in an attempt to evade the platform’s disinformation censors. Twitter told the Washington Post that it had investigated and removed around 3,500 accounts that had commented on the report, but the platform was unable to determine the source of the campaign. ASD Research Assistant Nathan Kohlenberg has discussed Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts to ramp up its information operation capacity in order to shape narratives around crises facing the Kingdom.

In Case You Missed It

  • Three-quarters of people on earth live in countries where democracy is declining, according to Freedom House’s annual report.
  • The House passed a sweeping elections bill that includes measures to harden election-related cybersecurity and counter foreign interference efforts.          
  • A Government Accountability Office report said that federal cybersecurity has “regressed” since 2019 due to factors including a lack of centralized cyber leadership.
  • A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would create an interagency office at the State Department responsible for coordinating international partnerships to promote research and set standards around emerging technology.
  • A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced legislation that would allow Americans to hold foreign governments legally accountable for malign cyber activity.
  • Russia has targeted Germany with disinformation campaigns more than any other European Union member state, a new EU report finds.
  • The Chinese Communist Party conducted an international propaganda and disinformation campaign to discredit the BBC throughout January and February, according to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
  • Facebook lifted its ban on political ads that began immediately after the 2020 general election.

ASD in the News

The Nord Stream 2 dilemma: Why a trans-Atlantic dispute is likely to go from very bad to even worse, CNBC. Comments from Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina

The color of money, War on the Rocks’ “Net Assessment.” Co-hosted by Co-Director Zack Cooper

Chatter #123​ – Bret Schafer on Information Warfare and How Social Media Disrupts Democracy, The Jist. Interview with Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Disinformation during the pandemic: How can the Visegrad countries combat it successfully?, Euractiv. Interview with Program Manager and Fellow Nad’a Kovalčíková

From vote to virus, misinformation campaign targets Latinos, AP. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

The Great Reset: What COVID-19 Means For Europe, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. Virtual panel with Program Manager and Fellow Nad’a Kovalčíková

Women leadership: Is it something special?, Women in International Security Brussels. Interview with Program Manager and Fellow Nad’a Kovalčíkova

Slovensko cez Sputnik V otvorilo Rusku dvere – Svet – Správy (Slovakia opened door to Russia through Sputnik V), Pravda.sk. Comments from Program Manager and Fellow Nad’a Kovalčíkova

Quote of the Week

“Shoring up our democracy is a foreign policy imperative. Otherwise, we play right into the hands of adversaries and competitors like Russia and China, who seize every opportunity to sow doubts about the strength of our democracy. We shouldn’t be making their jobs easier.”

  • Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a speech on March 3.
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.