02 November 2020

Russian hackers, Chinese intelligence operations and local disinformation, once again in the US electoral campaign

Mircea Mocanu

The US registered a record number this year having a turnout bigger than 93 million one day before the elections. These figures are leading us to three simple conclusions: 1) the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the Americans to allocate several days for the voting process; 2) the “elections’ day” concept is at risk; 3) the general turnout in the US will register a historical percentage.

Image source: Profimedia

But the early voting system did not surprise the actors that are interfering in the electoral campaign, despite the warnings and measures developed to provide the fairness of the electoral process in the US. Therefore, Reuters wrote about the Russian hackers’ interference in the electoral campaign. Precisely, the “Fancy Bear” group, coordinated by the GRU, would have executed cyber attacks on the Democratic Party’s emails in Indiana and California, as well as websites of important think tanks, like the Council on Foreign Relations, The Open Society Foundation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for American Progress and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Already starting with September, Microsoft was announcing that Fancy Bear has attacked around 200 non-governmental organizations involved in activities related to the November 3rd 2020 presidential elections. Even before that, in August, the DNI warned that Moscow conducted cyber attacks against the democratic candidate Joe Biden. Indeed, the Russian Embassy in Washington called the statements fake news. On the other hand, Washington Post was showing, since August, that president Trump was accused in a New York Times article for deliberately trying to stop the US intelligence community from offering more information about Russia’s actions in the US political affairs, precisely, for pressuring it to eliminate, from the annual intelligence report, the idea that Russia would want him to get reelected. It seems that this was also the reason why the former DNI director, Dan Coats, got fired.

Kremlin and Beijing in the US elections

We do not want to debate here whose side Kremlin is in the electoral fight in the US, as it might support both options. However, we can state that Moscow wants to compromise the entire electoral process in order to attack the US democracy itself. Anyhow, this doctrinaire objective Russia has is available for all Western democracies.

In fact, according to Washington Post, Beijing is also interfering in the US presidential elections, in an even more sophisticated way than Moscow does it, through actors outside the government, for example, the billionaire Guo Wengui.  He is promoting stances against the Chinese communist leadership (Guo promotes the creation of a “New Federal State China”), but, in fact, he is following the Chinese Communist Party’s indications. Among others, Guo published on GNews (Chinese language-based website) documents and images which would have been extracted from Hunter Biden’s laptop, a topic we will address below. The pro-Trump websites took the information from the GNews website, but the news was blocked by Twitter, so Guo tried to use other distribution channels. Given that GNews is discrediting the information supported by Bannon and Giuliani (asking for an FBI investigation), this makes us all think that Guo is, in fact, supporting the democrats by misleading the Republicans’ allegations. According to the Chinese dissident, Bob Fu, this “intelligence operation wants to create confusion among the American electorate and attack both parties”. Therefore, the legitimacy of the winner will be weakened, regardless of whom that would be. This is a win-win strategy.  Of course, Guo said that Bob Fu’s statements are classic disinformation actions of the Chinese Communist Party, and Fu is a master of such operations. Maybe Bannon and Giuliani truly think that Guo is a pro-American militant and they are being used by Guo to help China, and the investigation will go back against the Republicans. Until then, however, the elections will be over, and the White House will have a less trustable president, regardless of his name. What should the American people think?!

For now, we see that such disinformation actions were conducted from both sides of the electoral confrontation and from entities which support one candidate or the other. One of the topic that provoked disputes is the mail-in voting, that president Donald Trump and his supporters claim it is inducing large scale vulnerability for fraud. The supporters of the democrats have accused that such information is fake news, because independent studies and even governmental officials says such negative effects are quite rare. The fear of mail-in voting is a long-debated topic, because, as pointed out above, such votes could represent more than 50% of elections’ result.

Hunter Biden’s laptop and the scandal that made it to Romania

The already well-known laptop of Hunter Biden is a controversial topic in terms of disinformation. The topic led to debates in Romania due to the interference of the Romanian politicians, authorities or even officials from the Romanian governmental structures in suspect transactions with Hunter Biden or Joe Biden’s circle. The topic might continue to provoke disputes in Washington after the elections as well, especially from a juridical perspective. For now, however, it seems that this issue has not affected Joe Biden’s campaign that much, as it was treated more like a conceptual dilemma on the fight against fake news. Concretely, after the Twitter campaign to a New York Post article based on an e-mail which was extracted from Hunter Biden’s laptop (which was taken to be fixed at a Delaware laboratory), it was questioned the legitimacy of the IT companies’ interference in the Internet traffic, through decisions on the availability of some information posted by the users, lacking federal regulations in the field. The action was quite interesting if we consider the public’s interest for it: before the article was blocked by Twitter, the article got 5500 shares in 15 minutes. After it was blocked, the article had 10000 shares each 15 minutes. Definitely, it was the human who naturally showed interest in the article. Although Twitter’s measures were purely technical and ethical, it was immediately politicized, of course, because anything that affects the political interests is naturally being politicized. Thus, Twitter was accused for confronting the conservators and supporting Joe Biden, the democrats. In fact, IT companies which are operating the social media through the Internet (called Silicon Valley) are thought to have a leftist political orientation (the US democrats).

There is still a dilemma on whether IT companies should decide what content represents fake news

For all of those who are passionate about theoretical aspects, which will be interesting also after January 20th, when the future US president will be inaugurated, the discussions on the IT companies’ interference on the users’ content is already taking the political field’s energy directing it towards ethical and juridical matters. The problem here is that disinformation makes money because it is highly consumed on the Internet. So, the IT companies should act against their raison d’être, against the business model they were built upon.  Not mentioning the disputes among those who want to regulate the field (for example, alike the model cigarettes’ promotion was normalized)  and those who defend the freedom of speech, crucial for democracy, and who doubt the legitimacy of the Silicon Valley’s decisions, when the companies are choosing what represents a fake news and what does not. Furthermore, the information volume circulating through the Internet makes any such efforts extremely hard.  The human nature supported lie’s existence since forever and will continue to do so. The problem is that the Internet makes it to be heard out loud, globally, and the humankind is not ready to separate the good from the bad when needed.

Translated by Andreea Soare