Our Take

What will Germany’s foreign policy look like after the federal elections in September? GMF researcher David Metzger analyzes the major parties’ platforms and how they address Russia, China, and information manipulation in an ASD blog post

Russian state-backed media outlets are leaning into the culture war debates over coronavirus vaccine and mask mandates in democracies like the United States and Germany, Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer told the New York Times

By verifying their social media accounts and developing a communications strategy, election officials can counter divisive narratives and false information spread by Russia, China, and Iran, Cybersecurity Fellow Maurice Turner said in a talk at Voting Village at Def Con.

Using technology to challenge how concepts are labeled can help break down barriers and drive inclusivity, Cybersecurity Fellow Maurice Turner explained at the inaugural Blacks in Cybersecurity Village at Def Con.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Last week, Russian state media and diplomats focused heavily on the Tokyo Olympics by both celebrating Russian successes and amplifying President Putin’s claim that the ban of Russia’s name, flag, and anthem was political. In U.S. coverage, Russian state media paid a substantial amount of attention to allegations that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed nearly a dozen women and criticized CNN’s coverage of the story. Meanwhile, Russian state media highlighted protests against vaccine mandates and lockdowns around the world, attacked former U.S. President Barack Obama for holding his 60th birthday party amidst the outbreak, and continued to spread positive news about the Russian Sputnik V vaccine while disparaging competitors. Finally, state media and diplomats criticized U.S. policy in Afghanistan, compared the U.S. withdrawal to the Soviet Union’s failed intervention in the country, and highlighted disagreements between the United States and allies over the conflict. 

Chinese diplomats and state media devoted a significant amount of attention to the Tokyo Olympics last week, with diplomats continuing to levy accusations that Western media outlets were intentionally choosing bad photos of Chinese athletes. State media also accused U.S. outlets of tampering with their medal tables to make the United States look better. Meanwhile, Chinese officials and state media continued to flood social media with conspiracy theories surrounding Fort Detrick and the origin of the coronavirus. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Hua Chunying shared a state media survey claiming that 83 percent of respondents wanted the World Health Organization to investigate the United States. Chinese state media also continued to show interest in the situation in Afghanistan, at times criticizing the United States as responsible for the chaos in the country.

Iranian state media and diplomats focused heavily on the inauguration of Ebrahim Raisi as president of Iran last week, with Supreme Leader Khamenei’s commentary generating substantial engagement on Twitter. Diplomatic accounts used the occasion to highlight engagement with foreign countries, including Oman, Iraq, and Bangladesh, while state media reported that representatives from 82 countries were in Tehran for the inauguration. After the G7 issued a statement blaming Iran for an attack on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman late last month, state media and diplomats jumped to the regime’s defense, denying that Tehran had a role in the attack and deflecting blame to Israel and the United States. Finally, state media celebrated Iranian successes at the Tokyo Olympics, while also criticizing the Olympic organizers for failing to recognize the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

Read the full report here.

News and Commentary

Facebook disables access for researchers studying disinformation: On August 3, Facebook removed accounts, pages, and platform access for two researchers affiliated with New York University’s (NYU) Ad Observatory project, which studies how political ads target individuals. Last year, the researchers launched a browser extension to collect data about the ads, which roughly 16,000 people installed. Facebook said that the Ad Observatory extension was conducting unauthorized data scraping and endangering users’ privacy, citing a 2019 Federal Trade Commission (FTC) privacy order. The FTC later dismissed Facebook’s claim as inaccurate. The NYU researchers denied that they were collecting private information and pointed out that the browser extension’s code is public and has been reviewed by outside experts. On August 6, a group of Democratic senators led by Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) sent Facebook a letter arguing that it is “imperative” that Facebook grant researchers access to “harmful activity” that is “proliferating on its platforms.” ASD Program Manager and Analyst Bradley Hanlon and Jessica Brandt have argued that social media platforms should increase information sharing with researchers to provide clarity around content moderation policies and the impacts of algorithms. 

New report uncovers Chinese information operation on English-language social media: The Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) released a report last week detailing a coordinated influence operation pushing pro-China narratives across Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. A network as large as 567 artificial and repurposed accounts on the platforms sought to distort narratives on divisive topics ranging from U.S. racial injustice to human rights abuses in Xinjiang, per CIR. This network’s tactics—including repurposing existing accounts, using AI-generated profile pictures, and targeting specific individuals like exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui—were similar to those that Chinese actors employed in past influence operations, like the “Spamouflage” campaign exposed by social analytics firm Graphika. Though the researchers at CIR stopped short of attributing this network to the Chinese government, Chinese officials have historically amplified similar content in other influence operations. ASD Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer previously identified a network of pro-China Twitter accounts that sought to spread narratives that supported Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions and undermined U.S. social cohesion. 

In Case You Missed It

  • The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and Dominion Voting Systems refused to comply with a subpoena from Arizona Senate Republicans to provide more material for the county’s 2020 election audit.
  • Former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and Inspector General’s Office on August 7 about former Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark’s attempts to undermine the 2020 election. 
  • Suspected Chinese state-backed hackers posed as Iranian hackers in a two-year cyber espionage campaign targeting Israeli government and telecommunication networks.
  • The United States, United Kingdom, and Canada imposed new sanctions on Belarus, one year after the fraudulent election that enabled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to retain power.
  • Facebook took down a network of accounts linked to a Russian marketing firm that aimed to enlist influencers in a disinformation campaign around coronavirus vaccines. 
  • Cybersecurity experts expressed concern over Apple’s plans to include software to flag child sexual abuse and argued that the surveilance technology may be abused by law enforcement or autocratic governments.
  • The United States launched an initiative with Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others to help strengthen the cybersecurity of critical infrastructure entities.
  • A new Senate report found that of the eight federal agencies audited for cybersecurity programs, only the Department of Homeland Security showed improvement in protecting sensitive data since 2020.

ASD in the News

The Appeal of Autocrats, One Young World. Remarks from Director Laura Thornton 

Germany on alert for election meddling as poll nears, The National. Cites ASD research

(Dis)integrated Deterrence?, War on the Rocks. Co-hosted by Co-Director Zack Cooper 

中国比特币矿主转战全球 美国该张开双臂欢迎吗? (Chinese bitcoin miners’ fight around the world: Should America welcome them?), VOA Chinese. Comments from China Analyst Bryce Barros

Quote of the Week

“We are competing for the future of cyberspaceone in which friends gather, colleagues communicate, businesses sell, consumers buy, dissidents organize, horrific crimes occur, governments hear from their citizens, and information is widely and quickly disseminated.” 

  • Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas remarked during a keynote speech at the Black Hat Conference on August 5, 2021.
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.