Our Take

The United States needs to set uniform international standards for future internet technologies and push back against those that threaten civil liberties and human rights, Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman argued in Lawfare.

China is leveraging an outward-facing digital social media presence and more traditional tools of information manipulation to highlight its way of doing business, Head of Research and Policy Jessica Brandt wrote in the National Endowment for Democracy’s Power 3.0. Brandt and Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer argued that China is more confident than Russia in its brand of messaging on Western social media platforms.

In the past few weeks, the Chinese Communist Party has shown how adept it is at weaving narratives that distract from its own failures in handling the coronavirus outbreak, China Analyst Matthew Schrader said on Lawfare’s “ChinaTalk” podcast. Brandt and Research Assistant Nathan Kohlenberg explained how the use of inflammatory and polarizing content, such as the term “Wuhan Virus,” provides fodder for Beijing’s information operations.

Social media platforms have taken a more aggressive approach to address coronavirus misinformation than they have with political disinformation, Gorman argued in the Financial Times. Brandt warned The Age that in this environment, lies travel faster than facts and, perversely, efforts to debunk a conspiracy theory can end up reinforcing it.

China Digital Times, CBS News, The Washington Post, and Maclean’s highlighted key findings collected from the newly expanded Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, including how China’s propaganda messaging campaigns are more extensive, confident, and sophisticated than any of its previous efforts. Bret Schafer also told Formiche that before the coronavirus outbreak, Italy was not among the main targets of Russian and Chinese propaganda, but in the past month, it has been the third most cited country by the Russian and Chinese diplomatic and government-funded media accounts on Twitter.

Click here to watch last week’s webinar discussion on new Hamilton 2.0 findings on Chinese government information manipulation tactics.

Hamilton 2.0 Tracker

Russia Toplines

For the eleventh week in a row, coverage of the coronavirus dominated the Russian media ecosystem last week. As has become the norm, much of this content relayed basic news updates on various aspects of the pandemic. However, one important theme this week emphasized Russia’s medical aid to other countries, particularly the United States. A few articles also highlighted areas of geopolitical tension that the pandemic has exacerbated, such as the transatlantic relationship and the divide between the West and authoritarian regimes.

China Toplines

The coronavirus was the most prominent topic by far within the Chinese media ecosystem last week. Much of this coverage consisted of basic news updates, but China’s humanitarian aid to other countries facing outbreaks received significant emphasis. At the same time, output also heavily disputed any suggestions of problems with Chinese medical equipment donations or China’s response to the outbreak more generally, often firing back with criticism of Western countries and officials making these suggestions. As has been the case since the beginning of the outbreak, Chinese media outlets this week continued their efforts to portray China as a benevolent global leader in this time of crisis.

You can read more of the analysis here.

News and Commentary

Facebook, Twitter remove video shared by Brazilian president spreading coronavirus misinformation in broader effect to block misleading claims on their platforms: Last Monday, Facebook and Twitter removed a video of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro spreading misinformation about an unproven treatment for the coronavirus. This takedown comes amidst growing pressure from EU regulators to step up efforts to remove misleading material about the virus and promote expert content from reputable sources. Facebook has since launched a fact-checking service in Italy to fight the spread of manipulated content on its messaging platform WhatsApp, while Google pledged to spend $6.5 million to help news outlets expose and track coronavirus misinformation, among other efforts. Fellow for Emerging Technologies Lindsay Gorman argued that social media platforms are taking a more aggressive approach in responding to the coronavirus “infodemic” than they have in handling political disinformation. (Business Insider, Financial Times, Reuters, The Hill)

Wisconsin Governor suspends in-person voting one day before elections; other states continue to explore voting alternatives: Today, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued an executive order postponing the state’s election, which was scheduled to take place tomorrow, setting up a likely court battle on the eve of voting. Wisconsin joins multiple states across the country that have postponed or dramatically altered their 2020 voting plans due to the outbreak. Numerous solutions are being discussed for adapting practices, including expanding early voting and vote-by-mail capabilities. Some states are also considering expanding or implementing mobile voting in upcoming primary elections despite warnings from cybersecurity experts that these systems are both unproven and vulnerable to hacking. Fellow for Elections Integrity David Levine has emphasized that foreign actors could exploit confusion in evolving voting processes caused by the coronavirus to undermine the 2020 elections and Americans’ confidence in the results. (The Washington Post, Evers.wi.gov, NBC News, Twitter)

In other news

  • Hungary’s Parliament passed an emergency law that introduces jail time for spreading “fake news” related to the coronavirus and grants Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the power to rule by decree without time limits; the bill has already been used to deny journalists in the country access to information for reporting on the pandemic.
  • Government officials are raising concerns about the privacy, security, and data collection practices of videoconferencing app Zoom after reporting revealed that thousands of Zoom calls were left exposed on the Web. New York Attorney General Letitia James also sent a letter last week inquiring about Zoom’s practices for detecting hackers and handling increased traffic on its network.
  • Twitter removed thousands of fake accounts that were part of five distinct campaigns linked to Egypt, Honduras, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Serbia for violating the platform’s policy and attempting to “undermine the public conversation.”
  • YouTube will reduce the visibility of content spreading conspiracy theories that link 5G technology and the coronavirus that could misinform users in “harmful ways.”
  • The United Nations announced that it will partner with Tencent, the Chinese tech giant and owner of WeChat, to host online conversations for its 75th anniversary.

Quote of the Week

“We need more European solidarity now. This is a crucial moment for cooperation in Europe. We have to prove that we are a community of values with a common destiny, working for each other in a turbulent, global world…We therefore call on our governments to overcome the old patterns of division in Europe and in the Eurozone.”

  • German and Italian leaders wrote in a petition to the governments of all Member states and to EU institutions (April 2, 2020)
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.