Our Take

One of Russia’s goals is weakening democratic institutions through the weaponization of race, which helps to divide Americans, Director Laura Rosenberger told The New York Times.

Rosenberger also told Deep State Radio that clear messaging from the government about the threat of foreign interference can increase resilience.

The majority of coronavirus news coverage has consisted of basic updates on travel restrictions and economic impacts; a small portion has highlighted stories of racism and xenophobia in the West, or promoted themes seen in China’s state media coverage of the crisis, Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt argued in The Hill.

Tech companies are proactively countering disinformation about the coronavirus, illustrating how much can be accomplished with a strong will to act, Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman said to NPR.

Local governments that operate websites without proper domain security are more vulnerable to hacking by a foreign adversary that might want to disrupt the 2020 elections, Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine said in WisContext.

News and Commentary

Facebook and Twitter take down Russian-linked accounts targeting racial divisions in the United States, operating out of West Africa: Last Thursday, Facebook and Twitter removed a network of Russian-linked fake accounts, some of which operated out of Ghana and Nigeria, that targeted U.S. audiences. According to CNN’s investigation, the accounts focused “almost exclusively on racial issues,” and attempted to sow societal discord using similar tactics employed by Russian trolls interfering in the 2016 election. Another technique appeared to be creating a non-governmental organization with real-world people working on the ground to build legitimacy for narratives promoted online. Both Facebook and Twitter found links between the individuals from this campaign and those associated with past activity by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which was responsible for much of the foreign trolling aimed at the 2016 and 2018 U.S. elections. This particular campaign, however, did not focus on political candidates or the upcoming election in November. Fellow for Media and Digital Disinformation Bret Schafer has demonstrated how Russian trolls have amplified corrosive voices to disrupt public discourse. Schafer has also argued that Russian trolls lurk on both sides of public debate to aggravate conflicts between African-Americans and the rest of the population. (The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, ASD, National Urban League)

Top law enforcement and intelligence officials brief lawmakers on election security, reportedly indicating they  “have not concluded” that Russia favors any particular candidate: Top U.S. officials briefed House and Senate lawmakers on election threats last Tuesday, indicating in an unclassified summary of the brief that the intelligence community has not concluded that Russia is “directly aiding any candidate’s reelection or any other candidates’ election.”  Three individuals familiar with the briefing said there were inconsistencies between the assessment and the one previously shared with the House Intelligence Committee in February where officials discussed Russia’s preference for President Trump’s reelection. The assertions from Tuesday’s briefing also differ from those the intelligence community previously shared with Senator Sanders, which indicated that the Kremlin is attempting to aid his campaign. At Tuesday’s briefing, the head of national counterintelligence did acknowledge that Russia is “broadly engaged in social media activities designed to divide us further, to discredit our electoral system and to disrupt our election.” Director Laura Rosenberger has warned of the dangers of politicizing intelligence about these threats, and underscored the need for clear and direct messaging from the federal government about efforts by foreign actors to undermine U.S. elections. (CBS, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, PBS, Deep State Radio)

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

For the eighth consecutive week, the coronavirus was the predominant topic in the Russian media ecosystem. Most of the coverage consisted of basic news updates, but some articles highlighted criticisms of various Western responses to the pandemic. A small amount of coverage also addressed the U.S. presidential race, with an emphasis on divisive narratives in the Democratic primary. Finally, a couple of pieces dealt with the controversy surrounding the first application of Twitter’s new “manipulated media” label. Read more here.

In other news

  • The Cyberspace Solarium Commission released a report proposing a new strategy for deterrence in cyberspace with over 80 recommendations for action across the public and private sectors.
  • Chinese-owned video app TikTok announced that it will open a “Transparency Center,” allowing outside experts to examine the platform’s daily operations and content moderation practices, among others; U.S. officials remain concerned that the company censors content to appease the Chinese government.
  • Last Thursday, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, boosted a conspiracy theory that has circulated on Chinese social media for weeks in a tweet saying “it might be the U.S. army” that brought the coronavirus to Wuhan.
  • Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced a bill that would provide states $500 million to help them prepare for potential voting disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak; the bill would also mandate that states set up emergency vote-by-mail systems.
  • Last Thursday, President Trump signed a bill to help rural telecommunication companies in the United States replace equipment from China’s Huawei, among others deemed a threat to national security.
  • France will authorize the use of equipment from Huawei in the rollout of its next-generation wireless networks.
  • After unanimous passage in the House and Senate, The Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2020 is on its way to the president’s desk; the law would require an evaluation of the full range of threats to, and those posed by, future wireless communications systems.
  • The U.K. parliament voted down a measure that would have banned the use of equipment made by “high risk groups,” such as Huawei, in the country’s 5G networks.

Quote of the Week

“From deliberate attempts to undermine our elections to devastating cyber incidents targeting towns and cities, malicious actors have been emboldened by our lack of strong cybersecurity policy. It is time for a new strategy that will make our nation more resilient for years to come.”

  • Legislative Commissioner on the Cyberspace Solarium Commission Jim Langevin (D-RI), said when rolling out the report (March 11, 2020)
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.