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This is the Dispatch’s final edition of 2023! We will resume our usual publishing schedule the first week of January 2024. Happy holidays to all of our readers!

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian diplomats and state media focused on two main narratives this week:

  • Putin’s re-election bid: Russian-backed accounts celebrated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s re-election announcement by highlighting the comments of Artem Zhoga, the so-called “hero of the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic]”, who expressed support for Putin and claimed that the announcement would “raise morale of the participants in the special operation by a thousand percent”. Russian state media also raised the specter of foreign interference in the election, with Sputnik Mundo claiming that NATO intelligence services were planning to “intensify activities” ahead of the election.
  • Ukraine: “Kiev Regime” and “Zelensky” were among the top phrases used by Russian state media on Facebook and Telegram last week. Propagandists discussed Ukraine’s loss of global attention, accused the Ukrainian military of robbing residential buildings, and claimed that Ukrainians have “distorted the history” of the Holodomor for propaganda purposes. Kremlin-linked accounts also considered candidates to replace Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, who, according to the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency Sergey Naryshkin, is losing confidence in the West, runs a “regime” full of criminals who are unwilling to negotiate, and is causing the Ukrainian people to suffer.

Chinese diplomats and state media focused on two main narratives this week:

  • China’s friendly neighbor: On December 12, Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Vietnam for a state visit that Chinese state media hailed as “like visiting relatives and family”. There was a concerted push to portray the bilateral relationship as excellent in every way, with the wives of the two countries’ leaders discussing women’s empowerment and young Vietnamese children gushing about their affinity for China.
  • China’s (un)friendly neighbor: Over the weekend, Chinese warships blocked Filipino supply ships from accessing small islands that the Chinese government claims as its own despite a 2016 international ruling to the contrary. The Chinese MFA and state media blamed the Philippines for the incident and criticized US support of the alleged “provocation”, with one state media commentator calling the Southeast Asian country “a little American minion”.

Iranian diplomats and state media focused on two main narratives this week: 

  • Israel-Hamas: The war between Israel and Hamas remained a major focus of attention for Iranian state media, which routinely claimed that Israel is acting as a US proxy and that US “mercenaries” are fighting in Gaza. Iranian media also continued to link Ukraine and Israel in their rhetoric, particularly after a meeting between Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin.
  • The Axis of Resistance: Iranian media and diplomatic accounts also sought to play up achievements by Iran’s growing defense industry, which has become a valuable supplier for the Russian military. This was part of a larger narrative in which Iran is the lynchpin of an axis of resistance, even as Iran coyly cast attacks on US forces by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Yemen as “local resistance”.

News and Commentary

Russian influence campaign uses celebrity images to push anti-Ukraine propaganda: Since November, a network of fake Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) accounts with ties to Russia’s military intelligence agency has been posting photos of prominent celebrities—including Taylor Swift, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Beyoncé—alongside false quotes criticizing Ukraine, amassing millions of views. Senior Fellow Bret Schafer told the Dispatch, “Clearly, the power of celebrity ‘endorsements’ still carry weight in propaganda, as evidenced not just by this report but by the revelation from Microsoft that Russia-linked actors had used Cameo—the celebrity video messaging app—to trick less prominent US celebrities into making statements that suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a drug user. It also speaks to the fact that, despite the understandable focus on the potential for emerging technologies to be weaponized in information operations, many of the most successful manipulation campaigns require neither technical sophistication nor significant resources.”

European Parliament vulnerable to cyber threats as elections loom: An internal review warned that the European Parliament’s cybersecurity “has not yet met industry standards” and leaves the body’s June 2024 elections vulnerable to various forms of interference, ranging from foreign cyberattacks to disinformation campaigns. Senior Fellow David Levine said, “This reporting underscores how a decentralized voting system can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, a decentralized system with 27 parallel voting processes that use different processes and work in a myriad of ways can make it more challenging for hackers to use a single vulnerability, or chain of vulnerabilities, to exploit an entire election. On the other hand, a decentralized system offers more potential avenues for election interference, which could make it harder for election officials to protect the entire EU parliamentary election from hackers. With nation-state threat actors like Russia likely preparing to use novel technologies and cyber tools to enhance their ability to try and subvert the June election, it’s good to see the European Parliament ramping up hiring in its cybersecurity directorate. That can hopefully help narrow the gap between adversaries’ cyber capabilities and the cyber defensive posture of the 27 national electoral systems that will be conducting elections for new European Parliament members in June.”

In Case You Missed It

  • Several US states that withdrew from the Electronic Registration Information Center, an interstate compact for voter registration data, are struggling to find effective ways to update their voter rolls, internal documents reviewed by Votebeat reveal.
  • An apparent influence campaign released more than 4,500 videos on at least 30 YouTube channels—with some using AI-generated avatars—promoting anti-US and pro-China narratives, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
  • Russian hackers targeted US intelligence officers in a spear-phishing campaign to steal information to influence the United Kingdom’s 2019 elections, according to a federal indictment recently unsealed by the US Department of Justice.
  • The New York Times hired an editorial director of artificial intelligence to direct how the paper uses the technology.
  • The United Kingdom established an Office of Trade Sanctions Implementation to enforce export controls and crack down on evasion through monetary penalties for companies.
  • An Indian intelligence officer has run a covert operation disguised as a fact-checking organization since 2020 to discredit US-based critics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to the Washington Post.

ASD in the News

Quote of the Week

“It is very clear that Chinese attempts to compromise critical infrastructure are in part to pre-position themselves to be able to disrupt or destroy that critical infrastructure in the event of a conflict, to either prevent the United States from being able to project power into Asia or to cause societal chaos inside the United States—to affect our decision-making around a crisis.”

—Brandon Wales, executive director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said in the Washington Post on December 11.

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