At a glance.
- US sanctions address Russian disinformation.
- China seeks to suppress "historical nihilism."
- Russian policy and law against Twitter.
- US Annual Threat Assessment addresses disinformation.
US sanctions outline Russian disinformation front organizations.
The US Administration this morning announced the response, long in preparation, to “impose costs” on Russia for election influence operations and other offenses in cyberspace. The measures taken include sanctions and diplomatic expulsions, and, of course, naming and shaming. The responses that directly address disinformation are largely in actions taken by the US Department of the Treasury, which today said that it was sanctioning "16 entities and 16 individuals who attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the direction of the leadership of the Russian Government."
"Russian Intelligence Services, namely the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), play critical roles in propagating Russian disinformation online," Treasury wrote, adding "The FSB, GRU, and SVR operate a network of websites that obscure their Russian origin to appeal to Western audiences. Outlets operated by Russian Intelligence Services focus on divisive issues in the United States, denigrate U.S. political candidates, and disseminate false and misleading information. The GRU and FSB were first designated in 2016."
Four front media organizations associated with three Russian intelligence and security services were singled out as disinformation shops: SouthFront (run by the FSB), NewsFront (also FSB), InfoRos (a GRU front), and the Strategic Culture Foundation (operating under the direction of the SVR).
The FSB directly operates SouthFront, an outlet registered in Russia that cultivates "military enthusiasts, veterans, and conspiracy theorists." SouthFront takes considerable pains to hide its connection to the FSB. In 2020, SouthFront specialized in pushing the line that voter fraud substantially affected the US Presidential election.
NewsFront is base in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian province of Crimea, and it, too, is run by the FSB. NewsFront's specialties include countering a news site that "advocated for human rights." It also pushed disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, which the Treasury Department cites as a good example of what it sees as the "irresponsible and reckless conduct" of Russian disinformation operations.
InfoRos is a GRU shop, run mostly by the military intelligence service's 72nd Main Intelligence Information Center (GRITs), an Information Operations Troops organization whose mission is "conducting cyber espionage, influence, and offensive cyber operations." InfoRos works as two organizations, “InfoRos, OOO” and “IA InfoRos.” The media front operated various websites, many of them nominally independent, to hawk GRU-promoted conspiracy narratives and disinformation. Denis Tyurin, a principal leader of InfoRos, is a GRU veteran.
The Strategic Culture Foundation (SCF) is an online journal. It's registered in Russia and run by the foreign intelligence service SVR, and specifically by the SVR's Directorate of MS (Active Measures). It enjoys a close working relationship with Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the last US election cycle SCF specialized in what Treasury calls "false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials involved in the 2020 U.S. presidential election." It publishes articles by conspiracy theorists, and it seeks to conceal its Russian provenance in the hope that readers will be likelier to trust it as a source.
The specificity of the sanctions is interesting, but the general tendency is familiar: use inauthentic front outlets to initiate and amplify disinformation, and keep it all as deniable as possible. And the intent is negative and entropic, not constructive. The outlets want to darken counsel, and not necessarily to persuade.
China wants to suppress "historical nihilism."
Reuters reports that the Cyberspace Administration of China has set up a tip line for residents to report online posts disparaging the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP will soon observe its hundredth anniversary, and it wants no one spitting in the soup, thank you very much. Anyone who “distorts” history, insults leaders and “heroes,” or rejects “the excellence of advanced socialist culture” are “historical nihilists,” and regulators encourage the public to “actively play their part in supervising society…and enthusiastically report harmful information.” Beijing typically ramps up censorship in advance of national occasions; critics risk jail time. Note that this campaign, while an exercise in suppressio veri, has a positive goal--inculcation of a good opinion concerning the CCP.
Russian law and policy continue to bark at Twitter.
Moscow also works on suppressio veri, especially with domestic audiences. The Russian government remains displeased with Twitter, which isn’t knuckling under fast enough to suit Moscow in the social platform’s compliant removal of content that Russian law and policy regard as illegal. TechDirt has an account of how Russian authorities have extended the slowdown they’ve imposed by way of reprisal. They’re using middleboxes to run Twitter traffic through for deep packet inspection.
Because there are workarounds available to avoid this, Russian authorities are responding to those workarounds with what TechDirt calls “the more collateral damage-prone IP-level blocklists.” The writer suggests that being forced to use the blocklists “(might) act as a deterrent for censorship obsessed governments that don't want a whole lot of attention focused on the fact they're massive cowards afraid of the free exchange of information that might challenge their hegemony.”
But that's probably a vain hope. A government whose predecessor classified roadmaps and severely restricted access to photocopiers is unlikely to worry too much about that form of reputational damage.
The US Intelligence Community's Annual Threat Assessment addresses disinformation.
The US Director of National Intelligence has released its unclassified version of the Intelligence Community's Annual Threat Assessment. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are flagged as threats, in that order of seriousness. “Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies, despite the pandemic.” Terrorist groups also get a look, but the familiar four nation-state adversaries have center stage.
Their offensive cyber capabilities are given due attention, with threats to infrastructure receiving a prominent place, but the Assessment also devotes considerable attention to disinformation and influence operations conducted by three of the four principal nation-state adversaries: China, Russia, and Iran.
China is touting its success containing the COVID-19 pandemic as evidence of the superiority of its system, a tactic designed to take advantage of a temporary condition. There's a more serious long game:
"Across East Asia and the western Pacific, which Beijing views as its natural sphere of influence, China is attempting to exploit doubts about the US commitment to the region, undermine Taiwan’s democracy, and extend Beijing’s influence. Beijing has been intensifying efforts to shape the political environment in the United States to promote its policy preferences, mold public discourse, pressure political figures whom Beijing believes oppose its interests, and muffle criticism of China on such issues as religious freedom and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong."
The Russian disinformation threat is characterized thus:
"Russia presents one of the most serious intelligence threats to the United States, using its intelligence services and influence tools to try to divide Western alliances, preserve its influence in the post-Soviet area, and increase its sway around the world, while undermining US global standing, sowing discord inside the United States, and influencing US voters and decisionmaking. Russia will continue to advance its technical collection and surveillance capabilities and probably will share its technology and expertise with other countries, including US adversaries.
"Moscow almost certainly views US elections as an opportunity to try to undermine US global standing, sow discord inside the United States, influence US decisionmaking, and sway US voters. Moscow conducted influence operations against US elections in 2016, 2018, and 2020."
Iran's influence operations are described as follows:
"Iran is increasingly active in using cyberspace to enable influence operations—including aggressive influence operations targeting the US 2020 presidential election—and we expect Tehran to focus on online covert influence, such as spreading disinformation about fake threats or compromised election infrastructure and recirculating anti-US content.
"Iran attempted to influence dynamics around the 2020 US presidential election by sending threatening messages to US voters, and Iranian cyber actors in December 2020 disseminated information about US election officials to try to undermine confidence in the US election."
And the Assessment summarizes the authoritarian temptation to control and manipulate information.
"Authoritarian and illiberal regimes around the world will increasingly exploit digital tools to surveil their citizens, control free expression, and censor and manipulate information to maintain control over their populations. Such regimes are increasingly conducting cyber intrusions that affect citizens beyond their borders—such as hacking journalists and religious minorities or attacking tools that allow free speech online—as part of their broader efforts to surveil and influence foreign populations. Democracies will continue to debate how to protect privacy and civil liberties as they confront domestic security threats and contend with the perception that free speech may be constrained by major technology companies. Authoritarian and illiberal regimes, meanwhile, probably will point to democracies’ embrace of these tools to justify their own repressive programs at home and malign influence abroad."
Governments other than the traditionally authoritarian won't escape this temptation either.