Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Securing Democracy Dispatch January 8, 2018

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Securing Democracy Dispatch

January 8, 2018

News and Commentary

We hope you enjoy this week’s extra-packed edition of Securing Democracy Dispatch which covers two weeks from December 22 to January 8.

Putin’s threat to democracy: Several excellent pieces from the past few weeks outline Putin’s tactics and objectives in undermining democracies. In Politico, Susan Glasser assesses that Putin seeks “wherever possible to reassert Russia’s position as the undisputed heavyweight of its neighborhood” through “some combination of political destabilization, bribery, propaganda, cyber-attacks and economic pressure.” Glasser cautions that this new “technological environment has created massive new vulnerabilities.” In The Washington Post, Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Jaffe depict a U.S. intelligence and law enforcement community that “never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions,” caught up in a “piecemeal response to the Russian disinformation threat.” John Cohen, former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security calls Russia’s activities “an existential threat to our national security.” And as Michael Weiss underscores in the Daily Beast, Putin supports extremist groups abroad and tries to turn “Russians worldwide into agents,” often recruiting organized crime which “proliferated with the demise of communism, and [whose] functionaries spread across Europe like spores.” Weiss discusses how the Kremlin operationalizes this network using numerous “European governmental nongovernmental organizations [or] ‘GONGOs’” which sow fears about “resurgent Nazism and Russian persecution,” creating fertile ground for Russia’s activities. Julia Ioffe in The Atlantic seeks to decipher Putin’s motives in these activities, finding that while “Putin and his country are aging, declining … the insecurities of decline present their own risks to America.” Asymmetric warfare “is classically Putin, and classically Russian: using daring aggression to mask weakness, to avenge deep resentments, and, at all costs, to survive.” (Politico, The Washington Post, Daily Beast, The Atlantic)

Guarding our elections: A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators responded to Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections by introducing the Secure Elections Act, sponsored by Senators James Lankford and Amy Klobuchar, which seeks to upgrade voting infrastructure to address cyber vulnerabilities. The Belfer Center’s Michael Sulmeyer, writing in Lawfare, gives the bill a grade of “Pretty Good!” because it “promote(s) better information sharing,” “fund(s) improvements to state election systems and processes,” and “establish(es) a bug bounty program to uncover new vulnerabilities in election systems.” Citing areas that still need to be addressed, he advocates for the intelligence community and FBI to work with DHS to guard our elections; urges states to take advantage of federal assistance and political campaigns to better guard themselves against hackers; and recognizes that this bill is only an authorization, which will require appropriators to take up this cause in order to cover the costs of implementation. As the midterm elections swiftly approach, Politico reported that “states rushing to guard their 2018 elections against hackers may be on a waiting list for up to nine months for the Department of Homeland Security’s most exhaustive security screening,” despite the fact that DHS found “Russian hackers targeted election systems in at least 21 states in 2016. (The Hill, Lawfare Blog, Politico)

Shoring up our cyber defenses against Russian cyber-attacks: Konstantin Kozlovsky, the jailed Russian hacker who claims the Kremlin directed him to hack the Democratic National Committee in 2016, said that he left a digital fingerprint — his passport number and the number of one of his visas, to connect him to the hack. In support of Kozlovsky’s claims, McClatchy quotes Leo Taddeo, former head of cyber operations in the FBI’s New York office: “What the defendant (in Russia) is describing would not be inconsistent with past Russian intelligence operations.” As Alec Luhn writes in The Telegraph, Russia uses cyber-attacks against Ukraine as a training ground for those against the West, cautioning that the West has an even “greater ‘attack surface’ than in Ukraine” given the “higher level of automation in Western infrastructure.” Given this elevated threat, the BBC reports that private companies, such as IBM, “are setting up enormous cybersecurity test labs where multinationals can come in and experience what it’s like to go through a cyber-attack — without any risk.” (The Hill, McClatchy, The Telegraph, BBC)


U.K. parliamentarian threatens sanctions against Facebook and Twitter:Damian Collins, chair of the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport select committee in the U.K. parliament threatened to sanction Facebook and Twitter if they do not provide information he requested about Russian disinformation on their platforms by January 18. In a statement, Collins made a plea for transparency: “There has to be a way of scrutinizing the procedures that companies like Facebook put in place to help them identify known sources of disinformation, particularly when it’s politically motivated and coming from another country.” A report by Survation, commissioned by the Syria Campaign, finds that “three in four Britons believe tech companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, and MPs, are not doing enough to counter the organized online spread of falsehoods by state actors such as Russia.” The poll of more than 2,000 adults in the U.K. identifies Russia as the country most likely to launch disinformation campaigns. (The Guardian)

RT as an “information weapon” and responses to disinformation: DFR Labreported this week on Russia Today (RT), finding it is used as an “information weapon” which “repeatedly subordinate(s) journalistic standards to Russian government narratives, selectively reporting facts and comments to validate the Kremlin’s portrayal of events.” In response to this disinformation environment, French President Macron proposed a new law targeting disinformation during elections. Introducing the law, Macron stated “When fake news are spread, it will be possible to go to a judge … and if appropriate have content taken down, user accounts deleted and ultimately websites blocked.” In the United States, some state lawmakers are introducing laws that would compel “public school systems to do more to teach media literacy skills,” which they call “critical to democracy.” According to Hans Zeiger, a Republican state senator in Washington, it is not a “partisan issue to appreciate the importance of good information and the teaching of tools for navigating the information environment.” The European Union Commission is also joining the fight against disinformation. A high-level expert group led by Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans will develop “an EU-level strategy on how to tackle the spreading of fake news, to be presented in spring 2018.” (DFR Lab, Politico, Associated Press, Europa)

Disinformation narratives in Latvia: William Cook, writing in Spectator, analyzes Latvia’s fears about the effect of Russian disinformation on Latvia’s Russian minority. Citing Russia’s preoccupation with the arrival of NATO troops in the Baltic states, Cook finds “Russia has responded with malicious falsehoods, in an attempt to turn the locals against these foreign troops. Some of this fake news is crude: NATO troops have raped local girls (untrue). Some is more subtle: NATO troops are staying in luxury apartments at local expense (also untrue).” Per Cook, this disinformation is “softening up local resistance” and “breeding doubt and weakening Western resolve.” According to Martins Kaprans in CEPA, while he agrees that the Russians perpetuate master narratives, such as Latvia “systematically discriminates against its ethnic Russians; that fascism is on the rise; and that Latvia is a failed state,” he believes the “actual impact on the Latvian public opinion is an open question.” (Spectator, StopFake)

Russia and Belarus embrace cryptocurrencies: President Putin has “commissioned work on establishing a cryptocurrency,” such as a “cryptorouble,” that may allow Russia to evade sanctions. According to the Financial Times, “As with the internet, which the Kremlin has largely learnt to tame in recent years, the interest in cryptocurrencies reveals Russia’s desire to harness a concept originally designed to be free of government influence.” Cryptocurrencies allow users to remain anonymous and increasingly facilitate illicit financial activity. And as Bloomberg reported, Belarusian President Lukashenko “is making a bid for a shiny new image as the continent’s freewheeling cryptocurrency king.” Lukashenko signed a decree that offers “tax breaks and legal incentives for dealing in digital currencies” as he attempts “to turn Belarus into an international tech haven.” (Financial Times, Bloomberg)

Our Take

The Alliance for Securing Democracy will host U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), U.S. Congressman Will Hurd (R-TX), and former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff for a discussion of responses to defend democracies from asymmetric attacks by Russia on Wednesday, January 10 at 9:00 a.m. If you would like to attend the event, please email There will be a livestream of the event at (GMF)

The Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Dave Salvo and Stephanie De Leon describe how Russia has turned its attention to upcoming elections in Mexico and Colombia. According to Salvo and De Leon, “Russia’s main apparatus for spreading disinformation in Latin America, RT en Español, has already targeted the 2018 elections in Mexico and Colombia, particularly on its Spanish-language YouTube channel, which is reported to have almost 4.5 million monthly viewers and approximately 400,000 subscribers.” (GMF)

In GMF’s World Wire collection of key questions for 2018, The Alliance for Securing Democracy asks “Will transatlantic democracies finally tackle the problem of foreign interference?” This is an open question given “Russia’s attempts to inflame societal divisions in democracies … provoked conversation about the challenge. Yet transatlantic governments took few steps to close vulnerabilities.” (GMF)

Hamilton 68 dashboard

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Hamilton 68 dashboard: While Democrats and prominent liberals continue to be the primary targets of Kremlin-oriented accounts monitored on Hamilton 68, Republican opponents of the president have increasingly come under attack. Attacks on John McCain, a long-time target of the network, have become more prevalent over the past month, with multiple anti-McCain articles appearing among the most shared URLs on the dashboard. And on Tuesday, monitored accounts were quick to jump on a campaign against Mitt Romney after news broke that the former Republican presidential nominee and long-time Trump critic might run for Orrin Hatch’s senate seat in Utah. By Wednesday morning, #neverromney was a trending hashtag on the dashboard, and the Utah election was among the most discussed topics within the network. While the release of excerpts from “Fire and Fury” temporarily muted the campaign against Romney, the involvement of Russian trolls and bots in the Utah election will be worth monitoring in the coming months.

Rachel Maddow on the dashboard: On Tuesday, the Rachel Maddow Show ran a segment on the growing trend of fake identities being used to flood online comment forums in an effort to manipulate public policy debates in the United States. Maddow referenced the work of the Alliance and the Hamilton 68 dashboard as she laid out the potential for state actors to manufacture support for specific policies and influence American discourse. The complete segment can be viewed here. (MSNBC)

Quotes of the Week

“On Russia, we have no illusions about the regime we are dealing with. The United States today has a poor relationship with a resurgent Russia that has invaded its neighbors Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade and undermined the sovereignty of Western nations by meddling in our election and others’.”

– Rex Tillerson, United States Secretary of State, The New York Times, December 27, 2017

“This new kind of threat that Russia has really perfected…the use of disinformation and propaganda and social-media tools to really polarize societies and pit communities against each other, to weaken their resolve and their commitment … What we have to do is come up with a way to deal with this very sophisticated strategy.”

– H.R. McMaster, Untied States National Security Advisor, January 2, 2018

Worst of the Week

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Seth Rich Conspiracy 2.0?: On Wednesday, the second-most shared article on Hamilton 68 was a True Pundit piece that attempted to connect an American killed in a plane crash in Costa Rica to former FBI director James Comey. While the text of the article does not explicitly implicate Comey in the downing of the passenger plane, the headline “Executive from Comey’s former hedge fund and family killed in Costa Rica plane crash” hints at a nefarious link between Comey and one of the deceased passengers, Bruce Steinberg, who worked for the same capital management firm that previously employed Comey. The article has already kicked off conspiracy theories on sites like Reddit, where “citizen investigators” have begun to piece together “coincidences.” This is the same formula used in the Seth Rich case, where a wild and unfounded claim was placed online, gained credence through posts and reposts on message boards, and was eventually adopted by more credible news sources

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