At a glance.
- Altered emails as disinformation.
- Foreign influence operators exploit Capitol Hill rioting.
- Saving the children from the protesters, Moscow style.
- Private sector content moderation.
- Jamming versus collection.
Stolen emails altered in the service of disinformation.
The goal of this particular operation seems clear enough: instilling mistrust with respect to newly developed vaccines for COVID-19. The motivation is less clear. But in any case the threat actors who stole COVID-19 vaccine documents appear to have altered them before releasing them online, the European Medicines Agency says. The material stolen, EMA says, “included internal/confidential email correspondence dating from November, relating to evaluation processes for COVID-19 vaccines. Some of the correspondence has been manipulated by the perpetrators prior to publication in a way which could undermine trust in vaccines.”
Emails about the vaccine development process were altered to give the appearance that this process was less credible than it might otherwise have been believed to be. And EMA stands by the effectiveness and credibility of its reviews. The corrupted, altered data thus appear to have been emails about vaccine development, and not data collected in the course of that development, or during evaluation of vaccines. That the files were altered suggests that disinformation was the purpose of the operation against EMA, as opposed to, say, intellectual property theft, which had been one conjectured motive.
Capitol Hill rioting as fodder for foreign disinformation.
Last Friday the US FBI renewed and updated a December warning about an Iranian campaign, "Enemies of the People," intended to exacerbate US domestic mistrust and division by "threatening the lives of US federal, state, and private sector officials using direct email and text messaging." The operation also involves menacing doxing.
“The Iranian cyber actors have sought to intimidate some of the officials with direct threats, including an image of an apparent text communication between the EOTP actors and an unidentified individual in the United States purportedly supporting the operation,” the Bureau’s warning says, adding that “Individuals in the United States intent on disrupting the peaceful transition of power potentially may be inspired by and act upon these influence efforts to harass, harm, threaten, or attack individuals specifically identified.”
“Enemies of the People” represents an extreme form of this tendency in influence operations. CyberScoop reports seeing a US intelligence assessment that claims Russian and Chinese services are using the Capitol Hill riot as an occasion for propaganda and disinformation. Those two nations’ styles have been consistent with that on display in past campaigns. Russian disinformation has been negative and disruptive, concentrating on producing red-meat conspiracy theories about the Capitol Hill riot. Chinese disinformation has been characteristically positive, that is, not positive in the sense of happy or optimistic, but positive in the sense of persuading its international audience of a particular position. More accurately, of two positions: first, the United States is a power in decline, and second, this is what happens when you tolerate democratic demonstrations--you get anarchy, which is why, to follow Beijing’s line, it’s a good thing they cracked down on Hong Kong. You want Kowloon Bay to look like the Tidal Basin? Didn't think so.
Seeking to deplatform opposition organizers.
And that includes the spontaneous self-organizing. Reuters reports that the Russian government is asking social media platforms, notably including TikTok and Vkontakte, to avoid promoting protests surrounding (and supporting) opposition figure Alexei Navalny, recently jailed on parole-violation beefs after his return from Germany, where he recovered from an unsuccessful GRU attempt to kill him using Novichok nerve agent. (President Putin's government has denied any responsibility for the assassination attempt, but few observers credit the denial.) The protests are illegal: under Russian law protests of more than one person require, Reuters explains, advance written consent. It's worth noting that the warning to social media outlets includes a now almost universal veneer of youth-protection: the authorities are particularly concerned that the young might be led astray by social media content.
Private sector content moderation.
A large number of private US companies, providers of online services and social media platforms, have taken action to exclude voices that questioned the fairness of the US 2020 elections (including most prominently the voice of President Trump) from their channels. Most of the banning has received generally positive reviews. The Washington Post, for example, notes with apparent satisfaction a strong correlation between a drop in misinformation and the exclusion of the former President and his more dead-end supporters from Twitter.
This has afforded Kremlin influence operators with an opportunity to tweak American hypocrisy over freedom of expression. Vanguard quotes official Russian reaction that called the bans "a nuclear blast in cyberspace." The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who posted the nuclear blast alert to a Facebook page, went on to say, "It’s not the destruction that’s scary but the consequences. A blow has been dealt against democratic values proclaimed by the West.”
Other, more responsible governments have also expressed reservations. Poland's for example, is now considering legislation that would prevent removal of otherwise legal content from social media, the Guardian reports. Poland's experience with censorship, of course, remains well within living memory.
Jamming versus collection.
Retired Admiral Stavrides, writing in a Bloomberg op-ed, argues that operations against Islamist terrorist groups, which radicalized, recruited, and inspired their adherents online, enjoyed significant successes, and that those operations have some useful lessons that might be used against domestic extremists as well.
A seldom remarked feature of those operations was that they collected against Islamist radicals with a view to developing targets and shaping military operations. One obvious way of thinking about deplatforming is in terms of censorship, but it might be equally well thought of as a form of jamming. The media over the past week have become aware of an old lesson from electronic warfare: if you jam a signal, it’s tough to intercept and analyze it for intelligence.
See, for example, the US Army's ATP 3-12.3 Electronic Warfare Techniques, page 3-9, and its discussion of "guarded frequencies," that is, "adversary frequencies currently being exploited for combat information and intelligence." Frequencies like that you take good care not to jam. All First Amendment considerations aside, and considered simply as a technical event, frequencies are like platforms, and deplatforming might be usefully seen as a form of private-sector jamming. The purge of extremist content and communications from their usual platforms seems, the Washington Post notices (amid coverage that's generally applauded such deplatforming) to have made it tough for the authorities to investigate planned misbehavior gurgling around in cyberspace. The Salt Lake Tribune has become aware of a similar issue at the state and local levels.
Perhaps one approach to the related challenges of misinformation and disinformation is to revive older distinctions between speech and deed, and to treat speech as a potential indicator of crime (or terror, or attack) and not an offense in its own right. Or, as an alternative, one could revive blasphemy laws in a secular form.