Just launched! ASD and the Brennan Center for Justice are excited to share the Midterm Monitor, an interactive tool designed to capture voting and election messaging from a select group of candidates, US media, and foreign state-backed sources across multiple social media platforms. Read our initial findings here

Milwaukee friends: Join ASD’s Bret Schafer on Thursday, September 22, at 7:00 p.m. CDT for a conversation in partnership with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and University of Milwaukee Institute of World Affairs on how mis- and disinformation are shaping US elections. Learn more and register here.

Our Take

The Ukrainian people’s resistance to Russia’s ongoing war against their country is a powerful reminder of the immense courage that is required to defend democracy and safeguard the survival of an entire nation and its citizens, Director Laura Thornton writes for International Democracy Day.

Russian propagandists’ portrayal of Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive ranged from non-existent to neutral, with the occasional article painting a rosier picture for Russians, Deputy Director David Salvo finds in the latest analysis of data from our Yandex Dashboard.

Extreme polarization in the United States has long served as fodder for foreign adversaries, but foreign propagandists can take little credit for our internal divisions; in many cases, elected officials have exacerbated these tensions, Senior Fellow Bret Schafer writes in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Follow us on Twitter for more quick takes @SecureDemocracy.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian diplomats and state media focused on three main topics over the last nine days: 

  • Ukrainian offensive: Kremlin-linked accounts framed Russia’s retreat from Ukraine’s northeast as a preplanned maneuver, highlighted Russia’s supposed military success, downplayed Ukrainian gains, and claimed that the United States was responsible for any Ukrainian advances.
  • Armenia-Azerbaijan border clashes: State media sought to position the Kremlin and the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organizations as power brokers capable of resolving border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  • Xi-Putin meeting: Russian-backed accounts did little to preview the meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, though limited messaging ahead of the event portrayed it as a message of unity against the “American world order.”  

Chinese diplomats and state media focused on three main narratives over the past nine days: 

  • European energy crisis: Chinese diplomats and state media emphasized how difficult Europe’s winter is likely to be without Russian gas, conflating protests against high energy costs with supposedly widespread anti-NATO and pro-Russian sentiments. 
  • Xi-Putin meeting: Chinese propagandists mentioned “Samarkand,” the city in Uzbekistan where the meeting took place, in 47 tweets; “Xi” was mentioned in 31 of those tweets, while “Putin” only came up once as China’s MFA refused to confirm the meeting would take place. 
  • UN Xinjiang report: China’s messengers continued to refute the UN report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, often relying on foreigners to make pro-CCP points. 

Read the full report here.

News and Commentary

Russia spends $300 million to covertly influence global politics: Since 2014, Russia has covertly funneled at least $300 million to support politicians and political parties sympathetic to the Kremlin’s interests in more than two dozen countries, according to a newly released State Department cable. Senior Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph said, “This US government assessment arrives at the same $300 million figure as our 2020 report on Covert Foreign Money. The findings are also like our own in that they point to an escalation since 2014 and usage of conduits, such as non-profits and shell companies. This is a strong move for the US government to release this information, showing how the aggressive approach to declassification of the Kremlin’s covert operations—which worked well in the run-up to the war in Ukraine—can be broadly extended to informing voters about assaults on democracy.”

Von der Leyen calls for democratic solidarity in State of the Union: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on EU member states to stand together against Russian aggression as she announced a “Defense of Democracy” package to combat “covert foreign influence” and energy reforms to offset Russian manipulation in her State of the Union address Wednesday. Head of European Operations Vassilis Ntousas said, “Von der Leyen’s third State of the Union address conveyed urgency and contained a very clear, cross-cutting theme: ‘securing democracy.’ Lofty in ideals, yet surprisingly mum on defense, the speech nonetheless included some interesting, actionable commitments, including the future launch of a ‘Defense of Democracy’ package to tackle malign interference, and the intention to potentially cut Hungary’s EU funds over systematic rule-of-law concerns. From the announced plans to tackle the massive energy crisis plaguing the EU to delivering a strong message to Ukraine that European sanctions will hold firm and the EU single market will help Ukraine rebuild, there was a clear effort to combine style and substance in describing the bloc’s direction of travel in this fight of ‘autocracy against democracy,’ as she said.”

Congress examines foreign influence in social media companies: In congressional testimonies this week, Twitter whistleblower Peiter Zatko expanded on claims that Twitter may have foreign government operatives on its payroll, and TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas told senators that the platform will not provide user data to the Chinese government, even as a BuzzFeed report found that US data has been repeatedly accessed in China. Senior Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman told the Dispatch, “The revelations from the hearings on corporate incentive structures that are ill-designed to support homeland security or democratic competitiveness reflect the environment in which social media platforms were created. Yesterday’s was an environment of naïve optimism for the power of technology to fuel democratic activity. Today, we are wiser to the challenges of foreign influence that social platforms exist in, and it’s time to build new incentive structures that align more closely with our national values.”

In Case You Missed It  

  • Nearly one in five videos found in search results for timely issues on TikTok, including covid-19, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and abortion, contained misinformation, researchers at NewsGuard found
  • Supporters of former president Donald Trump have overwhelmed state and county election offices with public records requests for 2020 election materials, complicating preparations for the upcoming midterm elections.  
  • The Department of Justice charged three Iranian nationals for a global hacking scheme that targeted local governments and critical infrastructure in the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Russia. 
  • The EU proposed a ban on all goods produced from forced labor, a move largely aimed at pressuring China to address human rights violations in Xinjiang. 
  • China has provided tens of billions of dollars in mostly secretive “emergency loans” to countries in economic distress, emerging as a key competitor to the International Monetary Fund.   
  • Beijing pressured the EU’s top intelligence official to cancel a trip to Taiwan after the travel plan was leaked to China.

ASD in the News

US: Russia spent $300M to covertly influence world politics. Senior Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph quoted in AP

Campaign cybersecurity might be the weakest link in the midterms. Senior Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman quoted in Washington Post

Report: Democracies at Risk From Russian Money, Meddling. Senior Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph quoted in VOA

Digital Bridge: Italian election—Midterm polarization—Android fallout. Senior Fellow Bret Schafer quoted in Politico EU

What’s in a name? Three words between Taiwan and war. Co-Director Zack Cooper quoted in Washington Examiner

L’influence, l’autre guerre de Vladimir Poutine contre l’Occident (Influence, Vladimir Putin’s other war against the West). Senior Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph quoted in L’Opinion 

L’Occident n’a pas réussi à fermer toutes les portes à l’ingérence russe (The West has failed to close all doors to Russian interference). Senior Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph quoted in L’Opinion

Putin finanzia i partiti sfruttando buchi legislativi. Report ASD/GMF (Putin finances parties by exploiting legislative holes. ASD / GMF report). Senior Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph quoted in Formiche

Soldi russi ai partiti italiani, i dubbi degli Usa sulla Lega già in un rapporto del 2020 (Italian parties, the US doubts about the League already in a 2020 report). Senior Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph quoted in La Republica

Il cavallo e la torre (the Horse and the Tower). Senior Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph interviewed on Rai 3  

推特内部混入中国特工?专家:北京借推特收集异议人士信息 (Twitter mixed with Chinese agents? Expert: Beijing uses Twitter to collect information on dissidents). Research Analyst Etienne Soula quoted in VOA Chinese

Quote of the Week

“This is not only a war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine. This is a war on our energy, a war on our economy, a war on our values, and a war on our future. It is about autocracy against democracy.” 

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in her annual State of the Union speech in Strasbourg, France on September 14, 2022.

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