News and Commentary

Russia’s next cyber targets: According to cybersecurity firm Trend Micro, the same Russian hackers who hacked the DNC in 2016, Fancy Bear, have been trying to infiltrate the U.S. Senate’s email servers since 2017 using phishing emails. Calling the digital fingerprints “very unique,” Trend Micro researcher Feike Hacquebord was unable to assess how successful the hacking attempts have been. Hacquebord said that the group was “using zero-days, or software vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers before the developer discovers and patches it,” which are very expensive on the black market and not the “stuff of amateurs.” There is also new evidence that Fancy Bear will target the upcoming Olympics, as “a group calling themselves “Fancy Bears” released purported hacked emails and documents from the International Olympic Committee (IOC)” in order to show “that the Europeans and the Anglo-Saxons are fighting for power and cash in the sports world.” In some better news, a cybersecurity official at DHS said that the agency now expects to complete “rigorous election security tests requested by a number of states by April,” rather than the previous lag-time of approximately nine months, just before the 2018 midterms. (Business Insider, The Hill)

A spotlight on Russia’s interference in the Western Hemisphere: Russian propaganda has been growing in Canada since RT installed itself there in 2005. But RT is not the only station promoting a pro-Russia narrative, according to The Star. Since 2009 the Russian government has been paying “Canada’s largest media companies to expose unsuspecting television subscribers to regime-sponsored disinformation in what amounts to a surreal 24-hour propaganda informercial.” To what end does President Putin direct these investments? The Star believes it is “in hopes that Western audiences will be convinced to reject their established institutions and systems, and embrace Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian anti-liberalism as an alternative,” through its promotion of “xenophobic, anti-LGBT and anti-Western sentiments in the Russian speaking community.” As Frida Ghitis underscores in The Washington Post, Russia’s interference is growing in the Western Hemisphere — with upcoming elections in Mexico, the country now finds itself “a click away from Russia and its boiler rooms of hackers” who are now targeting the country with sophisticated disinformation campaigns backing the populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. (The Star, The Washington Post)

New European developments in foreign influence operations: The Guardian unveils another piece of evidence that Russia is attempting to halt Westernization in the Baltics as it reports that “Russian-trained mercenaries are helping to establish a paramilitary unit” in the Serbian-led region of Bosnia-Herzeogovina, Republika Srpska, threatening to “destabilize” the Balkans and “resist NATO enlargement in the region.” The group will reportedly be used to fight opposition to Republika Srpska’s leader Milorad Dodik, who is loyal to Moscow. In response to evidence that the Russians are attempting to hack Sweden’s upcoming elections, the Swedish Government is creating a new public body that will be “responsible for bolstering the “psychological defense” of the Swedish public by “identifying, analyzing, and responding” to ‘external influence’ campaigns.” And someone is building a new Finnish-themed Twitter botnet in advance of presidential elections there on January 28. According to Andy Patel in F-Secure, the accounts of the current president and one of the candidates were recently followed by a number of bot accounts, stating, “It seems someone is busy building a Finnish-themed Twitter botnet. We don’t yet know what it will be used for.” But at least someone is now watching. (The Guardian, EU Observer, F-Secure)

Disinformation — new targets and questions about impact: Mother Jones finds that pro-Russian networks continue to target President Trump’s GOP critics, including Senator John McCain, Mitt Romney, Bob Corker, and others. Citing the Hamilton 68 dashboard, Mother Jones confirms that the Kremlin-backed trolls “turn their sights on Republicans who sometimes stand up to Trump.” While Lucan Ahmad Way and Adam Casey in The Washington Post find that Russia has meddled in 27elecions since 1991 with “little difference,” the missing piece of their analysis is that Russia is using disinformation and other tools to target democratic institutions, not just elections, in order to disrupt the very foundations of democracies. (Mother Jones, The Washington Post)

The United States wakes up to Chinese influence operations: David Ignatius, citing the recently released U.S. National Security Strategy, writes in The Washington Post that the Unites States has a new “push” to address Chinese influence operations in the United States. According to Ignatius, these “influence operations” operate in a “grey area of covert influence” outside the boundaries of traditional espionage, “weaponiz(ing) information to attack the values and institutions that underpin free societies, while shielding themselves from outside information.” Ignatius reports that the administration is concerned with “coercive and covert activities designed to influence elections, officials, policies, company decisions, and public opinion.” Josh Rogin finds that China is engaged in a “broad effort to interfere in U.S. institutions,” in which it “tries to shape the discussion at American universities, stifle criticism, and influence academic activity by offering funding, often through front organizations closely linked to Beijing.” Stating that academics and lawmakers are beginning to resist such activities in the United States, “After a long internal dispute, a high-level investigation and an intervention by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), [the University of Texas in Austin] last week rejected a proposal by the leader of its new China center to accept money from the China United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF),” a foundation that is “closely linked to the branch of the Chinese Communist Party that manages influence operations abroad.” Rogin also reports that the purchase of Grindr by a Chinese company is “raising concerns about user data privacy” among China experts, citing that “The Chinese government is sweeping up massive amounts of data on not only its own citizens, but also Americans.” (The Washington Post)

Our Take

Former Treasury official Kirill Meleshevich and the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Bret Schafer released a policy paper entitled “Online Information Laundering: The Role of Social Media,” in which they discuss how money laundering practices are also applicable to the way information is laundered throughout the social media space. They find “Just as ill-gotten money needs to be moved from an illegitimate source into an established financial institution, disinformation is most powerful when a façade of legitimacy is created through ‘information laundering.’” (GMF)

In case you missed it, The Alliance for Securing Democracy hosted U.S. Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Will Hurd for a two-part discussion with Secretary Michael Chertoff on responses to Russia’s attempts to undermine democracies. A video of the discussion is available here. The Alliance’s Dave Salvo and Stephanie De Leon provide an overview and analysis of the discussion here. (YouTube, GMF)

Hamilton 68 dashboard

Hamilton 68 dashboard: The protests at the Golden Globes took center stage at the beginning of the week, with the Kremlin-influence network bashing Hollywood for its hypocrisy if not complicity in sexual misconduct. On Monday, half of the trending hashtags focused on the awards ceremony, and two hashtags — #theyallknew and #sheknew — targeted key women in Hollywood, including Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey, who is now being mentioned as a possible candidate for the 2020 presidential race, was attacked in multiple reports shared by the network for her connections to disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein. The use of sexual misconduct allegations to divide Americans along party-lines has been a favorite tactic of Kremlin-oriented accounts on Twitter. (True Pundit)

Artikel 38 dashboard

Artikel 38 dashboard: A central theme this week in Germany was the ongoing protests in Iran, with Kremlin-oriented accounts accusing the German media of spreading false propaganda. According to one report that was widely shared by monitored accounts, protests are being wrongly presented as anti-regime demonstrations. By delegitimizing the government in Tehran, the article suggests, the German media fuels resentment. The content shared by the network paints a schizophrenic picture of the West: It is portrayed both as an omnipresent force behind global unrest as well as a declining power that is rapidly retreating from its role in global affairs.

Quotes of the Week


“I don’t think Russia is going to quit … Putin probably has never been stronger.”

– Ambassador Jon Hunstman, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, January 9, 2018

“Putin’s assault on democracy is undeniably real. I hope every American will read the Senate Foreign Relation Committee’s #RussiaReport and demand that our government take it seriously. We must protect our institutions and support our allies as they battle Russian interference.”

– Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, January 10, 2018

Worst of the Week

Attacks against the FBI and DOJ continued this week, as the Kremlin-oriented network continues its effort to erode trust in our institutions. The most egregious story pedaled by monitored accounts this week comes from True Pundit, which claims that FBI agents were awarded large cash prizes for their anti-Trump activities. According to the report, the department has been using meritorious and distinguished rank awards (which come with cash bonuses) to line the pockets of a posse of anti-Trump agents. The supposed smoking gun provided by True Pundit is that Andrew McCabe, a frequent target of the president, once received one of these awards from none other than Robert Mueller himself. If you are not boiling over with rage already, the article stresses that we do not yet know how many anti-Trump saboteurs have been rewarded because of the shadowy underhand dealings of the “deep state.” (True Pundit)

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