Our Take

Russia’s strategy in the information space is to create the impression that it is impossible to know who is behind a particular narrative, Director Laura Rosenberger explained in a story about the Russian-backed campaign to frame Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 presidential election in The New York Times. Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt argued that Russia’s Ukraine conspiracy theories offer a reminder that disinformation spreads through various channels, both online and offline. While elections are a prominent flashpoint, these interference campaigns are ongoing and put a range of political events in their crosshairs.

Amid U.S. preoccupation with internal politics, Russia may be trying to drive a wedge into the transatlantic sanctions coalition, Fellow for Malign Finance Josh Rudolph suggested in The Hill.

Democracies rely on objective reality in a way that authoritarian regimes do not, making them uniquely vulnerable when it comes to deepfakes, Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman argued on a panel at Defense One and Nextgov’s Cyber Summit.

Russian state-run news outlets attempt to manipulate the information space by amplifying particular narratives often related to foreign policy and creating the appearance of consensus around a certain idea, Fellow for Media and Disinformation Bret Schafer said on The German Marshall Fund’s Out of Order podcast.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act will test the Trump administration’s approach towards China, which has generally focused on trade aspects of the relationship, stated Rosenberger in The New York Times.

A new European proposal to create a centralized anti-money laundering supervisor is a major step in combating covert financial support used by foreign actors to influence European politics, Senior Fellow Josh Kirschenbaum wrote for the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

News and Commentary

Kremlin-backed campaign sought to shift blame away from Russia and onto Ukraine for 2016 election meddling: According to three American officials, U.S. senators were briefed in recent weeks about a years-long, Russian-backed campaign to shift blame away from Moscow and onto Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Intelligence officials reportedly told lawmakers about Russia’s evolving influence tactics, including its improved ability to disguise its operations. The briefing aligns closely with the testimony of former Senior Director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, who confirmed that the Ukraine theory is a “fictional narrative propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” Some Republican lawmakers have repeated these false narratives, including Senator John Kennedy (R-LA), who, this weekend, joined President Trump in casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was responsible for the hack-and-leak operation in 2016. Head of Research and Policy Jessica Brandt pointed out that foreign operators employ a range of tools to undermine the truth, and often rely on authentic domestic voices to advance their message. Brandt underscored that Moscow has a long history of promoting conspiratorial content to deflect culpability for its actions, and Director Rosenberger reinforced the idea that Russia’s interference operations are evolving and ongoing—aimed not only at elections but at democratic institutions more broadly. (The New York Times, CNN, The Hill, Twitter, Axios)

Ruling political party in Germany votes against Chancellor Merkel, increasing tensions over Huawei 5G decision: Leading figures in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party approved a motion that would grant the parliament veto power in the ongoing debate over whether to involve foreign companies, specifically Huawei, in the country’s next generation network. The motion was adopted with a large majority, despite Merkel’s opposition, who is in favor of allowing Huawei to supply equipment for Germany’s 5G development. Research Assistant Thomas Morley and China Analyst Matthew Schrader have argued against allowing Huawei access to telecommunications systems vital to Europe’s security, citing the company’s clear links to the Chinese party-state and its intelligence apparatus, its poor record on data privacy, and potential difficulties removing the company from European infrastructure once it is in place. (Deutsche Welle, Politico.eu, Wall Street Journal, Interference Matters)

Google updates its political ad policy to limit targeting: Last week, Google announced that it will restrict targeted political ads on its platform and clarify its policies to explicitly outline what is prohibited, including “deepfakes” and “demonstrably false claims” that could undermine trust in an electoral or democratic process. This announcement, which comes a few weeks after Twitter banned political ads on its platform, will likely increase pressure on Facebook to limit so-called “microtargeting,” which allows advertisers to target ads based on users’ interests inferred from browsing or search history. Facebook is reportedly discussing potential changes to its policy, including increasing the minimum number of people who can be targeted from 100 to a few thousand. Rosenberger has underscored the need for a legal framework that addresses the risks associated with online political advertising, which may be potentially damaging to democratic discourse. (Google, Wall Street Journal, Axios, The Guardian, Twitter)

10 weeks before primary voting begins, cyber threat information sharing centers at risk of funding shortfall: Two cyber threat information sharing centers that help state, local, and territorial entities address election system vulnerabilities by sharing information and best practices may face potential funding issues. There are growing concerns among lawmakers that the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed budget for FY20 would cut annual funding from $15 million to $10.4 million needed for the Center for Internet Security’s maintenance of services through the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center and Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center. Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine emphasized the importance of such programs, which facilitate crucial threat monitoring assistance and information sharing on all levels of government, as cyber threats targeting election infrastructure continue to occur. (Politico, Security Magazine, Twitter)

In other news

  • In a letter to President Trump’s National Security Advisor, a bipartisan group of senators urged the White House to create a position focused solely on coordinating and leading the U.S. effort to develop future telecommunications technologies.
  • The Trump Administration announced that it will begin issuing licenses to some companies to restart sales to Chinese telecom giant Huawei. Meanwhile, House lawmakers advanced legislation last week that would ban the government from buying telecom equipment from companies, such as Huawei, that have been deemed a national security threat.
  • A United Nations General Assembly committee voted to advance a Russian-led resolution that would pave the way for a new global treaty on cybercrime opposed by the United States and its Western allies.
  • A group of 70 former national security officials called upon states and agencies to take action to protect the 2020 election by investing in paper ballot backups, audit processes, cybersecurity, and training for poll workers.
  • Iran restored Internet access in large parts of the country following a 5-day shutdown aimed at stifling protests over an increase in gas prices.

Quote of the Week

“The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan Congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified … Right now, Russian security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them.”

  • Former Senior Director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, said in her opening statement before the House Intelligence Committee (November 21, 2019)
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.