Kremlin Watch Briefing: U.S. Congress should purchase more secure voting machines

Weekly monitor of pro-Kremlin disinformation effort in Europe. We follow best European analysts, best counter-measures and trends.

Topics of the Week

During a House panel last week, election experts stressed that Congress should increase funding to states so that they can purchase more secure votingmachines that would make it harder for Russia (and other hostile actors) to hack US elections.

France is planning to create a “study group” (similar to the EP or US Congress) in the National Assembly on “Cybersecurity and National Sovereignty”. No news on who will chair the group yet, but the plan demonstrates the seriousness of France’s approach.

The UK Ministry of Defence has published a study, “Countering hybrid warfare project: understanding hybrid warfare”, with the ambition to develop a framework under the Multinational Capability Development Campaign (MCDC) Countering Hybrid Warfare (CHW) project – to help nations understand, detect and respond to hybrid warfare.

The International Forum for Democratic Studies introduced a new blog, Power 3.0, focusing on the strategies that authoritarian regimes, including Russia and China, use to extend influence beyond their borders.

Good Old Soviet Joke

Armenian Radio was asked: “Is it true that conditions in our labor camps are excellent?” Armenian Radio answers: “It is true. Five years ago a listener of ours raised the same question and was sent to one, reportedly to investigate the issue. He hasn’t returned yet; we are told that he liked it there.“

US Developments

Protecting voting systems against Russian hacking

During a House panel last week, election experts stressed that Congress should increase funding to states so that they can purchase more secure voting machines that would make it harder for Russia (and other hostile actors) to hack US elections. The warning is particularly urgent in the run-up to the 2018 congressional elections. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Russian hackers tried to access the voting systems of 21 states during the 2016 presidential election.

The experts recommended a return to paper-based systems, like “optical scanners that tabulate paper ballots and provide tangible evidence of election results”, and discouraged the use of touchscreen voting machines, which can be hacked without leaving behind traceable forensic evidence. Several European countries have already returned to paper-based voting amidst fear of Russian interference.

Back in May, the Council on Foreign Relations published an extensive report addressing concerns about electoral cybersecurity and calling for “high-level political action […] to manage real and perceived cyber vulnerabilities in election systems”. The report is an excellent introduction for those interested in understanding the weaknesses and exploitation risks of electronic voting systems.

Russia investigation update

Two interesting developments emerged last week in the Russia investigation:

  1. The Senate Judiciary Committee (one of three congressional committees probing Russian interference in the election) is now investigating the role of the National Rifle Association in connecting the Trump campaign with Russians. The inquiry concerns the meeting of Donald Trump, Jr. and Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of Russia’s central bank (and a lifetime member of the NRA) at an NRA convention in May 2016. Read more here.
  2. Comedian Randy Credico has been identified as the intermediary between Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and Trump adviser Roger Stone, who has come under scrutiny for appearing to have advance knowledge of the Clinton campaign’s email hack. He has been subpoenaed to appear before the House Intelligence Committee in December. Credico gave an interview to RTfollowing the news in which he claimed that the subpoena was “about chilling WikiLeaks, and that starts with intimidating anyone who has met with Julian.” Read more here.

The family spat grows uglier

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is using increasingly harsh language to condemn Russian hostile influence efforts, in explicit opposition to President Trump’s equivocation and consistent sympathies towards Putin. While Trump again recently repeated his belief that ‘Putin is telling the truth’ when he denies meddling in the election, and praised his Nov. 21 phone call with Putin on Syria, Tillerson has been unusually forcible in his criticism of Russia’s actions. During a speech last week, he cited Russia’s “malicious tactics” and chided Russia’s hostilities towards its neighbors and other liberal democratic states as “not the behaviors of a responsible nation.” The State Department also issued a statement denouncing Russia’s move to pejoratively label all foreign media as ‘foreign agents’.

The impasse between Trump and his national security team is growing, and the lack of a clear, assertive policy is enabling adversarial actors like Russia to pursue their own agendas. The in-house conflict between Trump and his advisers is expected to come to a head with the $47 million arms deal for Ukraine, which now awaits Trump’s signature. The deal has the full support of his national security team, as well as the administration’s special envoy on Ukraine, Kurt Volker. Trump’s course of action so far remains unclear.

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The Kremlin’s Current Narrative

“Glory” to Mladic, shame to the ICTY?

Russia’s coverage of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is truly quite challenging to follow. Last week, Russia’s Vzlgyad reacted to news about the conviction of former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic with a long piece about a “Srebrenica cult” in Europe, “an entire system of pressure against stubborn nations, first of all Serbs and Russians”, and, predictably, denying that Srebrenica was an act of genocide. In a dramatic flourish, the article ended with the words “Glory to general Mladic”.

This week, Russians once again had a chance to recall their narrative regarding events in former Yugoslavia, after convicted Bosnian Croat general Praljak drank poison at the ICTY court hearing. This was, obviously, a “court” of fake justice, according to RT. Devoting almost no attention to Praljak himself, RT rails against “the dubious legitimacy” of the ICTY and American sponsorship of it, claims that the US “launched a war on Yugoslavia” and later founded the ICTY to cover up its crimes. “The ICTY has proven to be what we expected it to be, a kangaroo court, using fascist methods of justice that engaged in selective prosecution to advance the NATO agenda of the conquest of the Balkans as a prelude to aggression against Russia”.

Alternative news or Kremlin news?

Recently, RT has written many articles accusing everyone around of propaganda, censorship, double standards, limiting freedom of expression… after all, what else is new? The latest target is Google’s decision to de-rank RT in response to allegations about recent American election meddling by the Putin regime. RT predictably ignored the allegations, deciding that the best defence is offence: “Its true purpose is to control the political narrative, in order to keep people from reading different perspectives and asking inconvenient questions”; “Google is a cheerleader for American militarism and a loyal partner to war profiteers both in the arms industry and in Congress”; and our personal favourite, “It’s a war against anything that Google executives in Silicon Valley and their collaborators in government deem to be the wrong kind of news, the wrong kind of ideas, the wrong way of thinking”. RT’s outrage is so righteous and convincing that one might actually be tempted to entertain the idea that RT is in fact the true victim – until one recalls that RT is financed by Russia: the biggest worldwide supporter of terrorism, a state that blackmails other countries, invades neighbours, annexes their territories, and supports radicals all around the world. To be clear: RT has never been about ‘alternative news’only Kremlin news.

Policy & Research News

Polish women shooting separatists in Donbas?

VSquare published a thorough analysis of a disinformation story that has been circulating on Kremlin-backed media, complemented by massive support from pro-Russian trolls. One report, published by the Russian press agency RIA Novosti in March, included accusations of alleged foreign (often female) mercenaries from Poland killing hundreds of separatists from Donbas. The false reports lack any evidence, usually supporting the narrative about female snipers with photos of men. Some of them claim that the mercenaries were hired by agencies that, upon investigation, turn out to be non-existent.

Social media will share the outreach of Russian-backed accounts

The chair of the British digital, culture, media and sport committee, Damian Collins, asked Facebook and Twitter to provide information about whether Russia-backed accounts had been used during the Brexit referendum to influence voters. In response, and also addressing the UK’s Electoral Commission, Facebook and Twitter stated that they will publish the results of their investigations in the next few weeks.

The influence of authoritarian regimes

The International Forum for Democratic Studies introduced a new blog, Power 3.0, focusing on the strategies that authoritarian regimes, including Russia and China, use to extend their influence beyond their borders. The analysis and commentaries on the blog will be dedicated to topics encompassing the role of new technologies in weakening democracies, gaps in the international financial system, weaknesses of global culture and education, as well as the strengths and best practices of democratic countries when dealing with these threats.

Seven days with RT

It is commonly said that you cannot judge something unless you’ve seen it. This is why Tim Dowling from The Guardian spent a week watching RT, which recently was forced to register as a foreign agent in the United States. According to his report, Russia is rarely the main topic of RT coverage. The “overarching narrative is a tale of the west’s unrelenting decline.” RT reports are typically accompanied by statements from unheard of “experts”, and sometimes include appearances by politicians who get paidfor their attendance. According to Dowling, “more than outright lies, RT deals in moral equivalency.” He highlights the fact that a significant portion of RT coverage is harmless and fairly normal, only interlaced with disinformation or manipulation from time to time, which worsens the impact.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Digital Hydra: Security Implications of False Information Online

That the online dissemination of ‘fake news’ is a problem requiring urgent redress is something that has been widely realized, with numerous possible solutions being proposed and, in some cases, implemented. However, the fight against disinformation does not lend itself to easy fixes. Fittingly, the authors of a NATO StratCom CoE study called Digital Hydra likened false information to the mythical creature that could generate two heads for each head it lost to the axe. In order to slay it, Hercules had to think outside the box, burn the stumps of the severed heads and smash the only mortal head with a rock. Analogously, anyone who is battling disinformation online must think beyond simply debunking individual stories.

To be able to successfully fight against fake news and its circulation on social media, one must have sufficient knowledge of both the problem itself and the measures being used to combat it. This study offers both, focusing on geographical and cultural differences in the use of social media platforms and therefore in spreading disinformation; on blogs, which the authors consider vital for understanding contemporary disinformation campaigns; and on the collection of user data by third-party services, which can be exploited for targeted information activities.

The study concludes with four elementary recommendations: data awareness (the general public must be educated on how their online behavior is being tracked and how it can be used against them), channel identification (detecting “backbone” sites, which helps understanding the context in which false stories originate), dialogue with the industry (social media companies must take a more active role in tackling this issue and cooperating with authorities), and regulation (particularly in order to protect personal data).