Join GMF Berlin for Elections 2021: Choices for Germany after Merkel on Tuesday, May 11 at 12:00 p.m. EDT/ 6:00 p.m. CEDT. ASD Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer will give a special presentation to preview ASD’s German Elections Dashboard, an open-source tool tracking foreign and domestic narratives in advance of the 2021 state and federal elections in Germany. Register here.

Our Take

Chinese government officials and state-backed media are using India’s coronavirus crisis to portray China as India’s friend, denigrate the United States, and encourage India to step back from its deepening partnerships with other democracies, China Analyst Bryce Barros and Research Assistant Etienne Soula write in a Hamilton analysis blog post. 

The United States’ Malign Foreign Influence Center should be empowered to look beyond elections, cut across bureaucratic stovepipes, collaborate with the private sector, and quickly share information with both allies and the public, Program Manager and Analyst Brad Hanlon writes in an ASD blog post.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network should prioritize six principles in its implementation of the forthcoming ownership registry, including requiring reporting companies to disclose beyond the identity of their beneficial owners and allowing law enforcement to quickly access the beneficial ownership database, Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph writes in an ASD blog post.

Russia’s state-backed messengers are pushing out bits of information about coronavirus vaccines where necessary context has been removed or manipulated in a way that makes it technically true but wildly misleading, Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer said on “EPIDEMIC.”

Modern sanctions policy is intended to change adversaries’ future behavior, Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph said on “The Power Vertical.”

Follow us on Twitter for more quick takes @SecureDemocracy. 

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Last week, the Sputnik V Twitter account slammed Brazil’s decision to block imports of the Sputnik V vaccine as the result of political pressure from the United States and announced a defamation lawsuit against Brazil’s regulatory agency. State media amplified criticism of Brazil, and some diplomats bashed the United States for allegedly “putting commercial and geopolitical interests above saving lives.” Meanwhile, Russian diplomats and state media promoted the arrival of Sputnik V and other aid in India. Russian state media also continued to attack a leader of Black Lives Matter and accuse U.S. progressives and media of racial discrimination. Finally, Russian state media targeted President Biden, asserting that his first 100 days in office have been “good for totalitarian leftists” and “made the U.S. more divided.”

On the China dashboard last week, the Chinese embassy in Japan posted a widely shared cartoon depicting the United States as a grim reaper before taking the image down. Chinese officials also removed a Weibo post from a CCP commission account that compared the Chinese space program to the Indian funeral pyres that have come to symbolize the country’s struggle with the coronavirus. On that topic, Chinese diplomats and state media closely covered the various shipments of medical supplies sent to India last week, while also accusing the United States of selfishness. As with previous weeks, Xinjiang was the most mentioned topic promoted by Chinese official and diplomatic accounts on Twitter, with a range of diplomats sharing a report by a Swedish think tank that questioned the methodology behind a U.S. document accusing the Chinese state of genocide in Xinjiang.

Iranian officials and state media responded to an audio recording leaked online that allegedly featured Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif harshly criticizing the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Iranian economy and policy process, as well as decisions made by the late General Soleimani. Hardliners blasted Zarif over the remarks, while Zarif’s allies attempted to spin the leak to his benefit. Iranian media speculated on the source of the leak, and Ayatollah Khamenei implied that the leak might be a form of election interference. In other news, PressTV highlighted statements from senior Chinese and Russian diplomats supporting Tehran’s position that the United States must remove all sanctions before Iran returns to JCPOA compliance.

Read the full report here.

News and Commentary

Arizona 2020 election audit lacks transparency, clear process: The state Senate-mandated election audit underway in Arizona has been criticized by Republicans, Democrats, and elections experts for being riddled with inconsistencies and confusion. Cyber Ninjas, the firm hired by Arizona Senate Republicans to audit ballots cast in Maricopa County during the 2020 elections, has no experience conducting election audits, and its chief executive has promoted election fraud conspiracies. On April 29, a judge ordered Cyber Ninjas to release documents outlining its practices in the ballot recount, which showed that the firm was planning to use a range of questionable methods to review suspect ballots. Reporting also showed that Cyber Ninjas’ employees were marking ballots with blue pens that could spoil or change votes. Journalists were not permitted to observe the recount processunless they volunteered as observersuntil last Tuesday, but they still lack access to the full area where the audit is taking place. After a week of trying to gain access to the audit site, Arizona’s secretary of state now has several observers monitoring the recount. The Arizona Senate is paying Cyber Ninjas $150,000 to conduct the recount, though unknown donors are also putting money toward the effort, and One America News Network, a far-right cable channel that has spread false claims about election fraud, is also raising money for the audit. ASD Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine has argued that if baseless claims drive some states’ election policy, it will lead to two types of elections in the United States: one with verified election results, and one with results manipulated to legitimize election conspiracy theories.

G7 to consider rapid response mechanism to counter Russian disinformation: The foreign ministers of G7 countries, plus India, Australia, and South Africa, are expected to establish a new rapid response mechanism aimed at countering Russian disinformation. At a meeting today in London, the countries’ top diplomats will review research showing that a network of pro-Russian trolls is targeting the online comment sections of major newspapers in 14 democracies to spread views that are consistent with the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests, according to research funded by the U.K. Foreign Office. The trolls’ comments are then amplified by Russian state media as evidence that Russian positions are popular within democratic states. U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the rapid-response mechanism will enable democracies to collectively highlight and attribute disinformation campaigns to Russia. This new program expands on a previously established mechanism to counter disinformation among the G7 countries. ASD former Director Laura Rosenberger and Program Manager and Analyst Brad Hanlon have argued that democracies need to prioritize coordinating real-time responses to authoritarian disinformation operations. 

Justice Department launches four-month review of cybersecurity challenges: On April 30, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco announced that the Justice Department is undertaking a four-month review of its policies and strategy to combat malicious cyber activity from foreign governments and cybercriminals. The review will look at how cryptocurrencies enable cybercrime like ransomware and how supply chain attacks can impact national security. It will also seek to address the “blended threat of nation-states and criminal enterprises, sometimes working together, to exploit our own infrastructure against us,” Monaco said. This builds on the establishment of a Justice Department task force in April committed to identifying links between foreign governments and cybercriminals. The four-month review will also attempt to prepare the nation for emerging cyber threats, with Monaco urging for a more “innovative and aggressive” approach to keep pace with malicious actors. ASD Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt praised the focus of the Justice Department review and noted that authoritarians often use cyber operations and malign finance together to undermine democratic institutions. 

In Case You Missed It

  • The European Union suspended its effort to approve a massive investment deal with China as tension increases between the bloc and Beijing. 
  • The United Kingdom announced its first round of sanctions under the country’s new Magnitsky Act, which aims to impose financial restrictions on individuals involved in corruption and human rights abuses. 
  • The National Security Agency urged defense contractors to examine the connections between their operational and information technology to shore up vulnerabilities that U.S. adversaries could exploit. 
  • At least five federal agencies were compromised by suspected China-linked hackers who exploited vulnerabilities in Pulse Secure VPN, a widely used remote connectivity tool. 
  • The French government proposed legislation that would enable the algorithmic surveillance of phone and Internet communications to detect online extremist activity.
  • Facebook briefly blocked a hashtag calling for the Indian prime minister’s resignation amid increased scrutiny of the Indian government’s pandemic management. 
  • The actors behind the “Ghostwriter” disinformation campaign, which previously focused on spreading anti-NATO content, have hacked politicians’ social media accounts and attempted to sow domestic disruption throughout Europe, according to the security firm FireEye.

ASD in the News

Is Washington prepared for a geopolitical ‘tech race’?, TechCrunch. Comments from Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman   

West and Allies relaunch push for own version of China’s Belt and Road, FT. Comments from Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman    

Truman Members React to President Biden’s Speech to Congress, Truman National Security Project. Comments from Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman   

Parler app risks charges of selling out with Apple return, The Hill. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Quote of the Week

 “Free and independent journalism is our greatest ally in combating misinformation and disinformation.”

  • United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said on World Press Freedom Day.
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.