Dispatch (May 20th) from the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Our Take

The Kremlin’s use of malign finance to undermine democracy: ASD Director Laura Rosenberger will testify before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment on “Undermining Democracy: Kremlin Tools of Malign Political Influence.” Rosenberger will discuss financial and economic vectors of Russia’s interference within the context of its wider authoritarian toolkit. You can watch the testimony live at 10:00 a. m. on Tuesday, May 21 here.

The call for a united front against disinformation: Laura Rosenberger was quoted in the New York Times emphasizing the need for greater coordination between government and tech in fighting disinformation. “The platforms have taken some important steps,” said Rosenberger, “but it’s absolutely essential for the government to take appropriate action to make sure our elections are protected.” Rosenberger has previously written on the importance of taking calculated government action in combating disinformation online to protect democratic processes and institutions.

Russia’s main objective is to make Americans lose faith in the electoral process: ASD Deputy Director David Salvo appeared on Kennedy on Fox Business to discuss the need for bipartisan cooperation in responding to future threats of Russian interference. Salvo explained the ways in which authoritarians are adopting the tactics pioneered by Russia and argued that Congress will need to put partisan divisions aside to better support state and local authorities ahead of the 2020 presidential election. He underscored that the Kremlin’s larger geopolitical goal is not to support a particular candidate but to manipulate American audiences so they come to doubt the legitimacy of their own democratic processes.

ASD’s Authoritarian Interference Tracker shows a vast network of Russian influence operations: Deutsche Welle highlighted ASD’s Authoritarian Interference Tracker in arguing that nearly all European states have been on the receiving end of information operations by the Kremlin. The Interference Tracker identifies 400 examples of Russian interference in 42 transatlantic countries since 2000.

News and Commentary

Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigns in wake of controversial video footage: The Austrian vice-chancellor, leader of the country’s far right Freedom Party, has resigned after the release of a video in which he is seen promising government contracts and a stake in one of Austria’s largest newspapers to a woman he believed to be close to Putin in exchange for potentially illegal donations. Although the meeting appears to have been a setup, it revealed the far-right party’s willingness to accept Russian support. As Laura Rosenberger and ASD Research Assistant Thomas Morley detailed in a recent paper, the Russian government and its proxies nurture and shape illiberal populist movements in Europe as a means of destabilizing the West and advancing Russia’s foreign policy goals. ASD’s Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina has also argued that legal foreign contributions to political parties in the EU constitute a major vulnerability that could be exploited by countries like Russia ahead of the upcoming European Parliament elections. (Washington Post, New York Times)

FBI confirms that two Florida county election networks were breached in 2016: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis indicated that two counties in his state were hacked by Russian operatives in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. That the incidents involved two Florida counties was not previously known. The breaches, according to the FBI, were the result of a spear-phishing campaign. News of this intrusion was not immediately shared with the upper levels of state government or the counties themselves in what DeSantis called a major information “breakdown.” ASD’s David Salvo has argued for the importance of improving coordination between the federal, state, and local governments on cyber threats to voting systems and databases. (NPR, Miami Herald, The Hill)

The French government issues guidelines for online content regulation: The French government published a report last week outlining a social media regulation framework designed to hold large tech companies accountable for how they handle “hate content.” This report calls for the creation of an independent regulator to monitor social media platforms’ compliance with rules for combating harmful content. ASD’s Bradley Hanlon compared the proposal to the one put forward by the UK in April 2019, noting that neither adequately addresses how to deal with harmful content on private or encrypted messaging platforms despite growing concern about the potential for those services to be manipulated. (Office of the French Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, ASD Twitter, Wired)

Iranian-linked disinformation campaign targets audiences in the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia: A network of inauthentic personas and social media accounts linked to Iran impersonated legitimate news outlets such as The Atlantic, The Guardian, Bloomberg, and Politico, spreading disinformation and amplifying narratives critical of the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia, according to BuzzFeed News. The network, exposed by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, employed a range of tactics made famous by the Russian Internet Research Agency, including the creation of online personas and targeted engagement with journalists and activists. This network also produced fake articles intended to mimic the layout and appearance of trusted news outlets in order to spread falsehoods. ASD Fellow Clint Watts has argued that a growing spectrum of actors — from governments and terrorist groups to private companies — are turning to social media manipulation to push their agendas, highlighting the urgent need for an intelligence-led social media defense against disinformation. (BuzzFeed News, Citizen Lab, The Atlantic, ASD)

In other news:

● China pushed back on the U.S. government’s decision to ban American tech firms from installing Huawei equipment

● Facebook removed 265 accounts across its platforms after detecting evidence of coordinated, inauthentic behavior.

● Germany’s far right party ramps up its engagement on social media ahead of the May parliamentary elections.

● Mexico, Argentina and Brazil plan to initiate the region’s first 5G networks by 2021.

● Google will ban Huawei from making updates to its Android mobile operating system.

● Twelve Senate Democrats introduced an election security bill mandating the use of paper ballots to prevent cyber interference by foreign actors.

● Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned of significant financial consequences for social media platforms that fail to counter disinformation online.

● San Francisco city government announces the first ban on facial recognition technology.

● Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg argues that the company’s size is an asset in efforts to combat foreign interference.