At a glance.
- TikTok and the gamified struggle for mindshare.
- GRU and SVR accused of mounting disinformation campaigns.
- "Ghostwriter" plants disinformation around the Baltic.
- Chinese espionage and active deception measures.
What's the matter with TikTok?
US Secretary of State Pompeo has been strongly critical of China, and in particular of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in ways that Defense One sees as reminiscent of the rhetoric that marked the Cold War against the Soviet Union. “We have to keep in mind that the CCP regime is a Marxist-Leninist regime. General Secretary Xi Jinping is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology. Americans can no longer ignore the fundamental political and ideological differences between our countries just as the CCP has never ignored them.”
The current state of conflict seems to have shifted, an essay in Foreign Policy argues. With Huawei apparently on its way to containment, the "central front" has shifted to TikTok, and the essayist argues that this shift has happened for good reason. TikTok may be for the most part devoted to sharing goofy videos created and posted by teens and tweens, but it is, the essay says, in fact a vast and successfully gamified graph that casts an indefinitely wide net, that successfully catches the close attention of its users, and that is in principle in the hands of the CCP.
In any case, the US Treasury Department is finishing its review of whether TikTok constitutes a national security threat, the Wall Street Journal reports. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said yesterday that he intends to render his report to the President this week.
Alleged Russian disinformation efforts.
Several interrelated Russian disinformation operations are apparently in progress. Declassified US intelligence describes the GRU’s and SVR’s campaigns to spread disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York Times reports.
The influence operations running from May through this month have been staged for the most part through two news services, InfoRos and OneWorld.Press. One hundred fifty articles on the pandemic have been staged over that period. According to the AP, two GRU veterans have been identified with the effort. Denis Valeryevich Tyurin and Aleksandr Gennadyevich Starunskiy, have previously held leadership roles at InfoRos. They’ve also served in a GRU psychological operations unit--that is, an influence ops unit, variously identified by the Times as Unit 54777 or the 72nd Special Service Center--with which they maintain significant contact.
Apparently the GRU’s cousins in the SVR aren’t on the sidelines, either. Its connections with the Strategic Culture Foundation are currently being looked at by the FBI.
InfoRos and OneWorld’s content is aimed at Western and in particular US audiences. The pieces are written in idiomatic English and are designed to be run through and amplified by other sites and outlets.
The themes of the pieces are familiar: Russia is helping other countries, including the US with medical aid during the pandemic. COVID-19 may have been a US biowar operation that ran away from its masters (this one originated with China’s intelligence services). American “blue cities” have descended into chaos. People are worried about Hunter Biden’s sweetheart deal with a Ukrainian energy company (this one’s a useful twofer--a bad look for America and a bad look for Ukraine, neither of which countries have exactly been flavor of the month in Moscow for some time). And so on. As usual, the stories surround the lies with what in this case amounts to a thin bodyguard of truth.
Social media platforms, especially Facebook, have been labeling obvious state-run news outlets like RT (that is, “Russia Today”) and Sputnik as such, but it’s tougher to filter stories fed through third-parties, which is what InfoRos and OneWorld do. The AP likens it to money laundering, only with information instead of cash: content is “cycled through other news sources to conceal their origin and enhance the legitimacy of the information.” The strategy takes advantage of the long-standing but surprisingly seldom-remarked derivative nature of much news reporting.
GlobalResearch.ca is another news operation heavily engaged in placing stories to the advantage of Moscow, but investigators hesitate to flag it as directly controlled by the GRU.
OneWorld takes exception to those who’ve characterized it as a Russian influence operator. They are, they say on their website, “a global think tank,” and their response to the stories in AP and the New York Times runs under the headline “OneWorld's Response To Media Defamation: Sharing One's Opinion Doesn't Make Them A GRU Agent!” Exclamation point in the original.
We’re probably with the AP and the New York Times on this one. Leave aside the brassy implausibility of the notion that the New York Times is stooging for Secretary of State Pompeo and writers like Hugh Hewitt, and look just at OneWorld’s content. Its English isn’t bad, but it’s not native British, US, or any other cradle lingo, and its content shows the curious mix of tendentious news reporting and tabloidesque checkout line impulse-purchase bait that’s long been a marker of Russian information campaigns. Their site is also thin with respect to who they are, where they work, and so on. (In this respect the Strategic Culture Foundation goes OneWorld one better. They don’t offer an address, but they do list a couple baker’s dozen or so of contributors, only a few of which are avowedly pseudonymous.) These sites also show a curious mix of themes and stylistic quirks that cater to both the alt-right and the old left.
When names and addresses disappear from the sites of organizations like the Cato Institute, Brookings, the Heritage Foundation, the Atlantic Council, and New America, OK then, we’ll reconsider and think that maybe OneWorld is just another member of the think tank sector. Especially when we see Reason or the New Atlanticist link to tear-jerkers about lost teddy bears. Until then, if it swims like a duck in a nice cozy aquarium it probably belongs to the Aquarium.
Ghostwriter against the Near Abroad (Baltic front).
Separately, FireEye’s Mandiant unit outlines what it calls the “Ghostwriter” campaign intended to influence audiences in Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland against NATO. Ghostwriter is perhaps more obviously fraudulent than the efforts mounted through OneWorld. It “appear[s] to have leveraged website compromises or spoofed email accounts to disseminate fabricated content, including falsified news articles, quotes, correspondence and other documents designed to appear as coming from military officials and political figures in the target countries,” Mandiant’s report says.
The overarching goal of Ghostwriter’s content appears to be alienation of public opinion from the NATO alliance. Its production of articles and posts in English is a striking feature of its style. Mandiant believes it’s identified at least fourteen inauthentic personae through which Ghostwriter distributes its content.
There is, Mandiant says, “no modal Ghostwriter operation,” by which they mean that it’s opportunistic and willing to run with whatever seems to work. But a Ghostwriter campaign tends to follow a general outline. It begins by formulating a “false narrative,” supported by fabricated source documentation like phoney quotations, doctored images, and bogus official documents. The second phase is dissemination, which places stories in compromised legitimate news sites, op-eds, blog posts, and direct email campaigns. And as WIRED notes, an unusual feature of the campaign is the hijacking of legitimate news services' content management systems to place the stories.
China denies hacking the Vatican. In fact, it denies hacking anyone.
Chinese intelligence services are said to have penetrated the Vatican’s networks in advance of diplomatic talks with the Holy See. Recorded Future provides details of Beijing’s “RedDelta” threat group and its operations against the diocese of Hong Kong and the Vatican itself. The campaign’s goals are thought to be the extension of Communist Party influence over the persecuted “underground Church,” and collection against the Hong Kong diocese’s potential connection with pro-democracy movements in the formerly autonomous city. The negotiations themselves have a strong informational dimension: an essay in Foreign Policy argues that the Vatican's silence over matters concerning China represents a curious blindspot, and some have pointed to the 2018 agreements as the proximate cause of that blindness.
Since the research was released, China has said it’s always been firmly opposed to cyberespionage and that anyone who thinks Beijing hacked the Vatican (like for instance Recorded Future, whose study of RedDelta has been widely cited) needs to put up or shut up, Global News reports. Give them specific evidence, says the Foreign Ministry. It seems unlikely that Beijing would find any evidence adequate, in either quantity or quality. The Holy See itself has declined to comment on the reports.
Whatever China might have been up to in the Vatican and the Hong Kong diocese (and candidly it looks like it was up to no good in both places), it's been active elsewhere, and in this case with what appears to be a coordinated disinformation campaign. Conservative member of the British Parliament Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the foreign affairs select committee and has been critical of China, says he’s been the victim of an email spoofing campaign in which Chinese operators send embarrassing emails and other communications from bogus accounts that purport to be his. The Express says that Mr. Tugenhat realized the campaign was in progress when a reporter asked him about a press release he’d issued. Only, in fact he hadn’t issued it, and was quite in the dark about it. No doubt China’s Foreign Ministry would like to see the evidence here, too.