Sunday, September 9, 2018

Why Government And Social Media Platforms Must Cooperate To Fight Misinformation Kalev Leetaru

Kalev Leetaru,; Contributor, AI & Big Data, I write about the broad intersection of data and society.

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It was just over half a decade ago that I first experienced how naïve Silicon Valley was when it came to the potential for nation state adversaries to misuse their platforms to conduct information campaigns to sow chaos and discord across the world. Upon explaining to public policy representatives on the sidelines of an event the level of sophistication of state information warfare activities and that they were effectively guaranteed to see governments actively exploit their platforms in the next several years, if not already, the response was utter dismissiveness. That such talk was merely hyped hysteria, that anyone believing companies of their immense technological capacity could ever be misused in such a way simply had no understanding of technology and that their vaunted security and engineering investments guaranteed they could never fall victim to such misuse. Suggesting they engage even in passing with the counterintelligence community or simply read about the history of propaganda and information warfare to learn more how governments use information channels to deceive and sow chaos fell on deaf ears. Had Silicon Valley been a bit more humble and willing to acknowledge that technology exists in a very human world outside its borders, we wouldn’t be talking about Russian election interference in 2018 or only now boosting staffing in the counter-trolling arena. Unfortunately, the companies seem to have learned little from their failures.

Governments through time have been exceptionally adept at leveraging the technologies of each era towards their needs of surveillance, propaganda and information operations. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Internet era is the degree to which the US failed to anticipate how the digital world could be used against itself. That the birthplace of the popular web and the social media era could also allow itself to become a case study for adversarial state-sponsored disinformation campaigns using those very platforms is a testament to the utter failure of imagination of both the US intelligence agencies and the social media platforms themselves.

As with most such campaigns, the activities experienced by the social media platforms in conjunction with the 2016 presidential election were far from unexpected. The tactics were well understood by our European colleagues who had been an early testbed for the Russians and frontline witnesses to previews of the tactics and approaches that would be used in the United States. When I spoke in 2016 at a European intergovernmental event regarding evolving tactics in information warfare, I was struck by the sheer number of information operations European countries had observed and their incredible diversity in tactics, approaches and focuses. Much as the US could have learned much from its Middle East allies when first confronting ISIS tactics online, the US and its social media platforms could have learned an incredible amount from its European allies that would likely have helped it minimize and potentially even entirely avoid the election interference of 2016.

Even today in my travels and conversations with governments and specialist organizations throughout the world, it is remarkable how naïve and primitive the US’ understanding is of how information and hybrid warfare can be conducted using the digital world and the lack of comprehension of tactics around sowing chaos as a directive rather than narrower more targeted activities.

Allies and enemies alike across the world are actively putting social platforms to great use to advance their domestic needs in shaping social agendas and countering narratives they wish to suppress, assisting their foreign propaganda and image efforts and as part of their information warfare activities, whether directed against terrorist organizations like ISIS or against nation states of concern. Many of these countries are quite open about their activities, while even those that remain silent about their online operations inadvertently shed considerable detail about their activities through the various commercial monitoring services, data streams, network activity and contractors they rely upon to support their operations, much of which is directly observable both to the US Government and in the logs of the social platforms themselves.

That the discovery of an Iranian Facebook operation would garner headlines and worried statements from politicians is a sad commentary on just how woefully unprepared, inexperienced and naïve the general public and most policymakers are regarding the degree to which information operations have come to permeate the digital sphere. Much as US and European policymakers and social platforms professed to be genuinely shocked by how quickly ISIS managed to harness social media to its benefit, its rapid ascent and pioneering use of social was in fact a natural and entirely expected extension of the traditional propaganda and recruiting efforts long used by terror and hate organizations. Instead of forging its own path alone, US Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts could have avoided considerable early missteps by engaging more closely with our allies in the Middle East who had the greatest experience with those activities as well as taking a page from the playbook of the countries which pioneered and perfected online information activities and denial.

Rather than plead ignorance each time another information campaign is discovered and claim that social media companies simply cannot compete with the resources of nation states to conduct operations on their platforms, Silicon Valley must finally accept that state sponsored misinformation campaigns are a very real and legitimate threat to their businesses. Much as those companies participate in information sharing with governments regarding cybersecurity threats such as CERT, there is an incredible amount they could learn by coordinating more closely with friendly governments across the world to learn the kinds of information operations they are observing and to work in cooperation to develop countermeasures to mitigate them.

Under such a model, either a formal CERT-like coordination organization or, perhaps more likely given the sensitivities, sources and tradecraft involved, designated liaisons working with each government would relay basic sanitized details about new kinds of tactics and approaches those governments are observing being used in the wild to conduct information operations on their platforms. To a degree some of this is already occurring in small ways, but by formalizing and greatly expanding such cooperation and ensuring dedicated pathways directly to the engineering and security resources that could act upon that advice, social platforms could go a long way towards disrupting the currently unfettered Wild West landscape they offer to information operations.

Much as the military and intelligence communities have long engaged with the outside nontraditional world, from academic experts to science fiction and Hollywood script writers to help them think outside the box, social media platforms would do well to convene similar expert panels to help them think strategically and creatively about how their platforms might be misused. In particular, as the platforms prepare to roll out a new feature, the ability to use such outside expertise to think through how an adversary might misuse that feature could help avoid obvious missteps. Hiring retired and former experts from the counterintelligence and operations sides of the intelligence community as strategic thinkers rather than merely operational personnel would also help the social platforms build their tools from the ground up with an awareness of nation state misuse. After all, companies today build cybersecurity into their new features from the beginning, why should they not build counter-operations considerations in from the beginning as well?

At the same time, platforms should greatly expand their investments in helping to build a more information literate citizenry. Placing the entire burden of identifying false information exclusively on social media platforms is simply untenable. No matter how sophisticated their tools and no matter how much they invest in detecting such campaigns, there will always be information operations that slip through. The only true solution to fighting online information campaigns is to train the world’s seven billion citizens to treat everything they see online with a degree of skepticism and to vet and verify every piece of information before they share or trust it. Indeed, populations in some parts of the world are so accustomed to propaganda and information campaigns as part of their daily lives that they are far more adept at identifying false information operations. As my colleague Maria Belovas, Head of Press & Public Diplomacy [JB emphasis] at the Delegation of the European Union to the United States and formerly Head of Communication at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia put it best last year, the best and only true solution to the false information epidemic is to invest in a “a population that can recognize what a fake story is and [is able] to understand the wider context of why it is taking place.”

In the end, the events of 2016 were the result not of an unforeseeable event or technological breakthrough, but rather of hubris and failure of imagination. Only by governments and social media platforms treating information campaigns as a serious threat and working together to combat them can we truly take meaningful steps towards reining in the future of online informational warfare, while the only permanent fix is to focus on creating an information literate online citizenry.

Based in Washington, DC, I founded my first internet startup the year after the Mosaic web browser debuted, while still in eighth grade, and have spent the last 20 years working to reimagine how we use data to understand the world around us at scales and in ways never before... MORE

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