This is the last Securing Democracy Dispatch of 2021. We will be back in your inbox in the new year. Happy holidays!

Our Take

Domestic conspiracy theories about foreign interference in the 2020 election have been more damaging than any operation by Russia, China, or Iran, Research Assistant Joseph Bodnar writes on ASD’s Interference Matters blog.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian diplomats and state media last week focused on three main topics:

  • Ukraine: Russian state media amplified the Kremlin’s demands that NATO limit its presence in Eastern Europe and covered Russian officials threatening “dire consequences” for NATO if those demands are not met.
  • Germany: Moscow-linked accounts pushed back on a German court’s conviction of a Russian man for murder, criticized YouTube’s decision to take down a German-language RT channel, and used surging gas prices to push for Nord Stream 2’s certification.
  • Putin-Xi: A meeting between the Russian and Chinese presidents drew limited coverage, with state media highlighting the leaders’ decision to launch an “independent financial structure that cannot be influenced” by the West. 

Chinese diplomats and state media last week focused on three main subjects: 

  • #NoMore: The Chinese Consul in Beirut put out nine of the ten top tweets from Beijing-linked accounts. The tweets featured #NoMore, a hashtag used primarily to criticize U.S. foreign policy.  
  • Olympics: Chinese government-backed accounts attacked countries that implemented diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Winter Olympics and praised countries that didn’t.
  • Nanjing Massacre anniversary: Chinese diplomats marked the anniversary of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, during which the Japanese army killed as many as 30,000 Chinese citizens, with promises to “never forget” and to “cherish peace.” 

Read the full report here.

News and Commentary

Congress passes annual defense bill: On December 15, Congress passed the $778 billion 2022 National Defense Authorization Act that includes funding for defense innovation initiatives on emerging technologies, provisions to bolster cybersecurity, military aid for Ukraine, and requirements that reports be prepared on Russian influence operations targeting U.S. alliances and partnerships. ASD Deputy Director David Salvo broke down the implications to the Dispatch: “Like most large pieces of legislation, this year’s NDAA was a mixed bag. Just to give one example, the cybersecurity provisions in the NDAA are designed to bolster cooperation between the government and industry, but it gives industry a pass from having to report cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. That seems counterproductive to improved cooperation, particularly when the United States has another contentious election on the horizon and state-sponsored actors have demonstrated that the nation’s critical infrastructure is in their crosshairs.”

Malign foreign actors exploit Log4j flaw: Hackers linked to China, Iran, North Korea, and Turkey have attempted to exploit a critical flaw in Apache Log4j, an open-source logging software that tracks user activity and is present in hundreds of millions of devices across the world. ASD Research Assistant Joseph Bodnar told the Dispatch, “The Log4j flaw could give state-backed hackers and ransomware crews access to everything from consumer electronics to industrial control systems. And the worst is likely ahead of us. Sophisticated hackers could exploit the weakness, gain a foothold, go dark, and take action at a time of their choosing. Thankfully, the government and the private sector are working hard to limit the national security and economic fallout.”

China exploits social media by buying influence: A series of recent New York Times investigations reveals how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pays Western social media influencers and private firms to disseminate propaganda that bolsters Beijing’s image and undercuts accusations of human rights abuses. ASD Senior Fellow Bret Schafer said, “The reports again highlight the Chinese government’s widespread and systematic efforts to manipulate global public opinion. Without the ability to exert the kind of rigid information control it employs domestically, the CCP has instead turned to pay-for-play influence peddlers and Western validators to manage its reputation outside of China.”

In Case You Missed It 

  • Pro-Beijing candidates dominated Hong Kong’s first legislative election since the introduction of electoral reforms that cut the number of directly elected seats and pro-democracy members in the legislature.
  • The United States and the United Kingdom have dispatched cyberwarfare experts to Ukraine to assist in preparing for potential Russian cyberattacks targeting critical government and economic entities. 
  • Amazon partnered with a Chinese propaganda arm to sell more than 90,000 apolitical and political publications to expand its cloud-computing and e-commerce businesses in China, a Reuters report found.
  • Facebook is notifying nearly 50,000 users in more than 100 countries that they may have been targets of hacking attempts by surveillance companies working for government agencies or private entities.
  • The Senate unanimously passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, which will prohibit all imports from Xinjiang unless there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the goods were not manufactured using forced Uyghur labor.
  • YouTube blocked German-language Russia’s state-funded broadcaster RT’s third channel, Auf Sendung (On Air), after the site attempted to disregard the platform’s previous bans.

ASD in the News

The 2021 Lie of the Year: Lies about the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and its significance. ASD Director Laura Thornton quoted in Politifact 

Foreign Disinformation Stokes Fears of Violence in US. Senior Fellow Bret Schafer quoted in VOA

Biden Takes Aim at Kleptocrats. Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph quoted in Foreign Policy

The “Cowboy Cocktail”: How Wyoming became one of the world’s top tax havens. Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph quoted in The Washington Post

Pandora Papers caps off 2021 with consequences felt around the globe. Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph quoted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin discuss security cooperation against US. Co-Director Zack Cooper quoted in Washington Examiner

Episode 29: Curbing the Enablers of Illicit Finance. Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph featured on RUSI’s Financial Crime Insights podcast

Quote of the Week

Chinese leadership represents its interests with great self-confidence. Germany and Europe have every reason to represent their interests with equal self-confidence and commitment. We must align our China policy with the China we find in reality.”

  • German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in his first speech to parliament on December 15, 2021.

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