Foreign actors efforts to disrupt, misinform, and keep the electorate of the United States thoughts muddled are in high-gear as the Presidential 2020 election fast approaches. In a digitally connected world, influence operations abroad are active and at work.

Russia-China-Iran active

Microsoft published on September 10 their analysis of the efforts of adversaries which the company’s cybersecurity tools have identified and thwarted. The company noted three separate entities which the Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center has labeled: Strontium, Zirconium and Phosphorus.

  • Strontium, operating from Russia, has attacked more than 200 organizations including political campaigns, advocacy groups, parties and political consultants.
  • Zirconium, operating from China, has attacked high-profile individuals associated with the election and prominent leaders in the international affairs community.
  • Phosphorus, operating from Iran, has continued to attack the personal accounts of people associated with the election.

Russia is not a one-trick pony

Meanwhile, the need to keep our eye on the misinformation and disinformation originating or being directed by Russia was highlighted in a piece published on September 15 in Lawfare by Graphika’s Chief Innovation Officer Camille François. Specifically, she calls out the Russian playbook trope as antiquated. In reality, Russia’s efforts are “a series of experiments and rapidly evolving tactics using a diverse group of actors who are competing to outdo one another in their creative targeting of online conversations.”

François is spot-on. The Russian efforts are dynamic, carved from a history of Russian intelligence services active measures to shape and influence opinion. She continues how the fixation on the Russian activity as being focused on social media and advertising needs to be retired. While I agree, I would also add that the Russian intelligence services focused on disruption of western ideals are not a one-trick-pony at the carnival, they have significant resources available to them in the Russian Federation to do their handiwork.

Driving home the seriousness of the threat, the Department of State offers a rewards up to $10 million for information leading to the identification or locations of any person who works with or for a foreign government for interfering with U.S. elections. Concurrently, with the reward notification, “Understanding Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem” was published by the Global Engagement Center within the State Department. The 77-page report goes into great depth in attempt to assist the center’s audience on the nuances of the Russian misinformation/disinformation activities.

During the Q&A portion of his testimony before the House’s Homeland Security Committee yesterday, FBI Director Christopher Wray noted that the Bureau has cataloged “very active” Russian efforts to interfere in the 2020 election, saying its goal is “to sow discord…”

While in his submitted opening remarks to the committee, Wray said the FBI has refined its approach, “All efforts are based on a three-pronged approach, which includes investigations and operations, information and intelligence sharing, and a strong partnership with the private sector. Through the efforts of the Foreign Influence Task Force and lessons learned from both the 2016 and 2018 elections, the FBI is actively engaged in identifying, detecting, and disrupting threats to our elections and ensuring both the integrity of our democracy is preserved and the will of the American people is fulfilled.”

An educated electorate is the best defense

Voters in the U.S. will need to be alert as they read and digest information from dubious sources as the foreign intelligence entities continue to attempt to drive the U.S. electorate into disarray and disunity undermining the democratic ideals of the republic. François sums it up nicely with, “Tackling disinformation requires constant humility about what remains unknown, calm in the face of a threat that gets worse if it’s inflated, and attention to both details and individual stories as this landscape evolves and becomes more complex.”

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of