ICYMI: ASD launched the War in Ukraine: Military Bloggers dashboard, an interactive, open-source tool for analyzing the reach and messaging of prominent Russian military bloggers on Telegram! Read our key takeaways from the dashboard here.
By attaching anti-corruption conditions to non-security aid to Ukraine, Congress can further incentivize Kyiv’s transparency reforms and win over skeptical Republicans, Senior Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph writes in the Hill.
Instead of supporting Texas’ takeover of Harris County’s elections, state lawmakers should bolster the county’s election administration by widening vote counting timelines and providing necessary guidance via proactive, intermittent reviews, Senior Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine and Research Assistant Krystyna Sikora write in the Fulcrum.
We’re on Threads! Follow us @securedemocracy for more content from ASD at GMF experts.
The Securing Democracy Dispatch continues with its Q&A series this week. Today, we sat down with Bret Schafer, senior fellow at ASD at GMF, to talk about the information landscape.
What first made you realize you wanted to track and analyze information manipulation?
I honestly never made a conscious decision to focus on information integrity issues. Prior to ASD, I worked in entertainment and my master’s is in public diplomacy, so I considered myself more of a communications professional than a researcher. But there was such an intense interest in ASD’s information operations work when I started that there was both a need and an opportunity for me to specialize in this field. That said, my transition to this work wasn’t entirely accidental; in grad school, I focused on Soviet and post-Soviet propaganda, with the intention that I would work in public affairs in the region and would therefore need to understand adversarial narratives to be better at countering them. But I guess if you go back farther, the true start of my interest in information manipulation started during my time living in Hungary. This was years before conversations about “fake news” and online disinformation became commonplace, so my initial interest in the topic was born more out of a curiosity—and occasional frustration—with why certain rumors were so pervasive among my friends there, rather than any kind of scholarly or professional pursuit.
As the head of ASD’s information manipulation team, what is currently our biggest challenge in the information space?
Researchers in this space are facing multiple headwinds—from an increasingly hostile political environment to shrinking access to data and funding challenges—that have made it far more difficult, and risky, to do this work. In many ways it feels like all the gains that were made after 2016 to create better defenses against foreign information operations have started to fade away, and I fear that this retreat is happening at exactly the wrong time. The domestic information environment around the 2024 US presidential election is going to be combustible, our foreign adversaries are highly motivated to interfere, and ChatGPT and other generative artificial intelligence advances have introduced a host of new and yet-to-be-discovered threats to the information space. This is the time when we should be redoubling our efforts to combat information threats, but instead, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction.
How have state-backed information operations—by Russia, China, Iran, and others—changed since you started with ASD in 2017? Who is winning: democracy or autocracy?
There are a few different ways of looking at that question. From a tactics and techniques perspective, state-backed actors have had to adapt to platform, government, and civil society countermeasures that have made it more difficult to run information operations at scale, so we’ve seen clear tactical shifts to help them evade detection. But from a narrative perspective, not much has changed—not just over the past six years but probably over the past 40. It’s almost like a Hollywood movie franchise: the characters and the settings change, but the themes all feel the same.
What is one trend or statistic that you are watching?
I’m interested to see where state-backed actors go in the wake of Twitter’s slow demise and the general fragmentation of social media platforms. For most of my six years doing this work, the social media landscape has been dominated by Meta, Google, and Twitter, with everything else considered to be “fringe”—at least in terms of its use by overt state-backed actors. I can’t imagine, though, that the landscape will look the same a year or two from now, which means we’ll either see consolidation around a few new platforms, perhaps Threads, or more likely, increased diversification of influence activities across multiple platforms. That will make it harder for bad actors to reach and influence large audiences, but it will also make it more difficult to monitor, analyze, and counter.
What is one book you’re reading?
The last book I read was The Future is History by Masha Gessen, but while on vacation I’m planning to start Yellow Bird, a true story about a murder investigation on an Indian reservation in North Dakota. But I have two young kids, so it may be 2025 before I get through it.
“Our effort and resources, and those of allies and partners around the world, have enabled Ukrainians to fight for their lives, for their freedom, for their future. They’ve helped uphold the basic principles—sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence—that are vital to maintaining international peace and security.”
- US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, defending continued US support for Ukraine, at a press availability in Washington, DC on August 15.