At Defence Disrupted, PUBLIC’s Privacy, Security and Online Safety Lead, Dan Fitter, moderated a panel on “Weaponising information: Disinformation as a critical security threat”, where we heard from 3 leaders in the field: Sasha Havlicek (CEO & Co-Founder, Institute for Strategic Dialogue), John-Orr Hanna (Chief Intelligence Officer, CRISP), and Lyric Jain (CEO & Founder, Logically). This blog offers a series of takeaways from the panel discussion, considered alongside PUBLIC’s own insights on counter-disinformation trends and challenges from our current work with leading public sector organisations.
A DISINFORMATION ARMS RACE
The panel first examined the changing nature of the creation and dissemination of disinformation today. Sasha from the ISD highlighted the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, where Russia is using “[dis/mis]information as a prong of its wider strategy”, and John-Orr from CRISP spoke to disinformation’s broader impact across health, electoral, geopolitical, and commercial activities.
The panel collectively observed that disinformation is increasingly cross-platform in nature, and that new capabilities are required to meet this challenge. Lyric from Logically, in turn, highlighted how encrypted channels and closed networks have superseded traditional social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, as the primary attack vectors for spreading false and misleading information. It’s clear that a greater understanding of cross-platform dialogues, and the ability to effectively identify, triage and respond to information across platforms is necessary to meet this cross-platform challenge.
In addition, the adversarial landscape is expanding and evolving rapidly. Noting the creativity, cost and effectiveness of recent disinformation campaigns, all the panellists spoke to the increasing dynamism of disinformation today. Lyric flagged that when Logically was founded in 2017, around 12 countries globally had the capability to carry out information campaigns outside their own borders - that number has now grown to above 80 countries. Adversaries are now investing upwards of tens of billions in technology and building their capacity to perform disinformation operations. This is especially significant considering the changes to the vertical integration of providers of disinformation-for-hire - referring to the selling of disinformation services.
HOW ARE ORGANISATIONS RESPONDING?
Responses to disinformation by social media platforms, governments, and defence ministries were a major focus of the discussion. Private and public sector organisations must consider and calibrate their response in light of major upcoming changes in legislation, such as the passing of the Digital Services Act in the EU, and advent of the Online Safety Bill in the UK.
Lyric noted in the panel discussion that independent regulators are being given the responsibility to oversee online safety legislation around the world, and there is increasing support for the auditing of online platforms by extra-governmental think-tanks. However, Sasha highlighted that even with such developments in the disinformation regulatory landscape, major platforms are struggling to respond to new threats. She observed that platforms are failing to consistently enforce their own rules regarding bot-nets and algorithmic systems. In particular, newer channels such as TikTok appear to be inorganically amplifying disinformation - such as hostile anti-Ukrainian content in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In this context, an ecosystem of responders across private sector and civil society has helped the development of a playbook of operations and tactics to identify and expose falsehoods and fake news; aided by the professionalisation of the field by organisations such as the Digital Forensics Research Lab and Centre for Information Resilience. Due to the high volume of information operations over recent years, this playbook has emerged rapidly and has been pressure tested against active campaigns - throughout the COVID pandemic and most recently during the war in Ukraine. According to Lyric, there’s now evidence to say these counter-disinformation efforts are effective - such as Logically’s use of AI-enabled fact-checking software to sort through over 2 million pieces of content a day during the Russia-Ukraine war.
However, even with the most technically advanced technological solutions, the volume of mis/disinformation content online and the innumerable channels in which false narratives can propagate means that we must expect some disinformation to fall through the cracks. Read more about what strategic interventions can be implemented to counter and curb the spread of disinformation in our previous blog.
TOWARDS A MORE EFFECTIVE COUNTER-DISINFORMATION RESPONSE
In the third major theme of the discussion, the panellists considered what needs to be done now and in the future to enable effective counter-disinformation responses
The panel agreed that there is a need for a joined-up counter-disinformation strategy, both across and within the public and private sector. The UK government already has a cross-departmental approach to disinformation, coordinated by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS). Despite this, there is a need to continue bringing together government, civil society, platforms, regulators, and other stakeholders, all of whom have different views and data sources, to enable a joined-up understanding of, and response to, disinformation. Sasha highlighted that mis/disinformation is just one aspect of a hybridised online threat landscape, and we cannot take a siloed approach in responding to these complex threats. Finally, Lyric spoke to what a joined-up approach might look like, emphasising how signal sharing between organisations - platforms, governments, Safety Tech - is vital for counter-disinformation activities to get ahead of adversaries.
At PUBLIC we have previously outlined the need for a holistic, whole-of-government approach to defeating disinformation. The UK is comparatively ahead of the trend in enabling a joined-up counter-disinformation approach, and we anticipate countries internationally to look to the UK when developing their own strategies.
In Germany, where a joint open working group on hybrid threats (Bund-Länder-offene Arbeitsgruppe Hybride Bedrohungen) has recently been announced as the key federal counter-disinformation coordination body, and where on the EU-level the legal framework is evolving, this critical security threat is clearly high up on the agenda. While the coordination body is a step in the right direction, future policies in Germany must include similar strategic coordination in their development. Federal states should leverage the growing German Safety Tech industry, and ensure technological solutions are procured collaboratively to ensure de-duplication and enable a consistent understanding of the evolving threat landscape.
While secure intelligence sharing will better link up organisations across the counter-disinformation ecosystem, better data access is needed, both for regulators, and for independent researchers investigating information campaigns. This will invite auditing of how algorithmic systems impact online harms, thus enabling democracies to respond to disinformation with transparency and accountability in the long-term.
Finally, technology-driven solutions should be integrated with human intelligence and existing market expertise in order to be truly impactful. Sasha added that fundamentally, better data access and big data analytics must be combined with ethnographic research across closed and encrypted channels in order to most effectively deal with the challenge of rapidly evolving disinformation networks.
HOW CAN PUBLIC HELP?
The panel further reinforces PUBLIC’s online safety and MISDIS research around the rapidly evolving global information environment. New actors, channels, tactics and targets are emerging, while investment by hostile actors has increased. PUBLIC’s advisory work in the UK public sector, and engagement with international governments and Safety Tech innovators, has found that more stakeholders than ever rely on disinformation monitoring capabilities for a common threat assessment, and need strategic advice to develop a holistic approach to counter the threat.
In the UK, Europe and globally, public sector leaders responsible for counter-disinformation must evolve their approach in the light of this hostile threat environment. Without an accurate, near real-time common operating picture of MISDIS that tracks emerging narratives across traditional and unanticipated targets for disinformation activities, governments will continue to play catch up. However, PUBLIC also understands the unique operational constraints of public sector counter-disinformation teams. We take a proven, whole-of-government approach, working closely with partners, to ensure the strategy, policy and technology work we deliver in MISDIS is constitutional, supports democratic values and enables transparency.
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