Our Take

Beijing appears to be capitalizing on weaknesses in the U.S. response to the coronavirus, using it to emphasize fissures in the transatlantic relationship, Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt said to The Hill. Brandt told The Sydney Morning Herald that China is seeking to gain an advantage in the information domain by promoting the outright conspiracy theory that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to Wuhan. In an ASD blog post, China Analyst Matthew Schrader argued that these developments suggest the Chinese Communist Party is experimenting with new forms of disinformation that resemble those Russia uses, and is now repackaging internally directed propaganda themes for an external audience.

In expanding vote-by-mail efforts, state and local officials will have to use nearly every available resource to ensure voters can safely cast their ballots and to ensure the integrity of elections, Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine said to The Washington Post.

Clearly defining “foreign interference” will help Europeans create policies that identify interference threats and strengthen democratic processes; policymakers should consider two criteria–whether the activity is transparent and what is the foreign actors’ intent, Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina and Research Assistant Etienne Soula argued in an ASD policy paper.

The coronavirus pandemic is creating an opportunity for foreign actors who seek to undermine Western democracies to advance their goals. From weekly reports that track messaging from Russian and Chinese state-backed media and diplomatic actors, to pieces that analyze the geopolitical impact of crisis, ASD’s work on coronavirus can be found here.

News and Commentary

Chinese government officials promote conspiracy theories about coronavirus, falsely attributing virus’s origins to the United States: Last week, China’s Ambassador to South Africa publicly promoted the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in the United States, not in Wuhan. Senior government officials, including a spokesperson from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have been deflecting blame from Beijing and attempting to reposition China as a global leader in responding to the rapid spread of the virus. Politicians in Serbia and Italy have already praised China for providing material assistance to their countries as they continue to manage the crisis. The majority of Chinese narratives online highlight China’s competence and effective efforts to fight the outbreak, especially in contrast to the U.S. government’s pandemic-response. Director Laura Rosenberger has drawn parallels between the Chinese party-state actions and Russian information operations and argued that China is using this moment to experiment with new methods of information manipulation. Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt also said that China is promoting its efforts to aid European countries to attack shortcomings in the U.S. response to the viral outbreak, and emphasize fissures in the transatlantic relationship. (Twitter, Business Insider, Axios, The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The Hill)

Major tech companies take steps to counter coronavirus misinformation on their platforms: Last Monday, seven major tech companies issued a joint statement announcing their commitment to fight coronavirus-related misinformation on their platforms. They pledged to coordinate with federal healthcare agencies to share critical updates about the virus and invited other companies to join in their efforts. Twitter expanded its safety rules to prohibit posts that “place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19” and contain misleading content purporting to be from medical experts. Facebook also launched a portal that will serve as a “one-stop shop” for users to find news about the coronavirus from trusted sources. However, the platform has already encountered issues with its automated moderation systems and mistakenly blocked some legitimate new articles, flagging them as spam. In addition, Google said it will remove dangerous or misleading coronavirus information, including on YouTube, and will partner with the U.S. government to develop a website dedicated to coronavirus education and prevention. Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman has discussed the positive effects of these proactive, aggressive actions taken by companies to counter false information about the coronavirus. (Twitter, The Verge, The Washington Post, Vox, Business Insider, Google, NPR)

The coronavirus outbreak raises new challenges around voting: The outbreak of the coronavirus is disrupting presidential primaries across the country, bringing new voting challenges that have forced some states to postpone elections altogether. Last Tuesday, voters in Illinois, Florida, and Arizona confronted confusion when polling stations shifted or closed due to a shortage of poll workers. This also led to, in some cases, low in-person voter turnout. Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt has framed these new developments as a balancing act for policymakers, warning that last-minute changes to the voting process can create space for mishaps that can dent the legitimacy of elections. Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine has also cautioned that significant decreases in voter turnout can introduce questions about whether the vote is perceived as legitimate. (ProPublica, The New York Times, Florida Politics, The Guardian, Twitter)

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Last week, for the ninth week in a row, the coronavirus was predominant in the Russian media ecosystem. The majority of this coverage featured basic news updates, but some articles pushed back on claims that Russia is spreading virus-related disinformation in Europe. Meanwhile, the Russian government celebrated the sixth anniversary of the 2014 Crimean referendum on Twitter and continued its messaging around the U.S. presidential primary, in which it alleged media bias and other improprieties. Read more here.

In other news

  • The Justice Department dropped charges against two Russian companies that were indicted in Special Counsel Mueller’s probe for orchestrating a social media campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election; the companies were allegedly exploiting the case to gain access to delicate American law enforcement information.
  • A group of Democratic senators introduced the Natural Disaster and Emerging Ballot Act of 2020 in an effort to decrease the spread of the coronavirus; the bill would promote mail-in and early voting and provide $3 million to the Election Assistance Commission to implement some of the law’s provisions.
  • Attorney General Bill Barr said the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the cyber incident involving the computer networks of the Health and Human Services Department that took place two weeks ago. Barr added that there would be severe ramifications if a foreign entity is found responsible for the hack, or for the disinformation campaigns aimed at sowing fear about the coronavirus in the United States.
  • China, South Korea, and Israel are using personalized location data to contain the coronavirus, raising concerns among privacy advocates that the spread of the pandemic could lead U.S. policymakers to consider expanding the government’s surveillance powers.

Quote of the Week

“The disinformation campaign that they are waging is designed to shift responsibility. Now is not the time for recrimination, now is the time to solve this global pandemic and work to take down risks to Americans and people all across the world.”

  • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking about Chinese leaders at a press conference last week (March 17, 2020)
Newsletter Sign Up

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