Information Quality as a First Line of Defense Against Foreign Malign Influence

By J.D. Maddox

J.D. Maddox is an expert in political warfare, and an academic, writer and former political candidate. He has served as a Central Intelligence Agency branch chief, deputy coordinator of the U.S. Global Engagement Center, advisor to the Secretary of Homeland Security, and as a U.S. Army Psychological Operations team leader. He currently consults on Operations in the Information Environment to government organizations, and consults to commercial and political organizations on strategic communications. He's an adjunct professor of national security studies at George Mason University's Schar School, teaching Disinformation and Policy Responses. He also recently initiated "Tab D," a biweekly report highlighting U.S. adversaries' narrative vulnerabilities.

SPONSORED CONTENT — In the past six months, foreign malign influence alarms have been screaming. Analysts have warned that Russia and China have accelerated their information campaigns, taking advantage of new technologies and old vulnerabilities. The effects of these new operations remind us that the U.S. remains dangerously susceptible to these tactics and that we require new countermeasures.   

In December, data analytics firm Recorded Future announced that its analysts uncovered new activity by an extensive Russian influence operation, originally dubbed Doppelgänger by Meta analysts. This operation included false U.S. news websites and innumerable social media accounts. The campaign was much more sophisticated than previous efforts, precisely targeting Ukraine, Germany and the U.S. In one case, a threat actor used over 800 social media accounts to share links to fake articles impersonating reputable Ukrainian news organizations, working to undermine Ukraine’s relationship with the West.

In April, Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center (MTAC) warned that Russia’s disinformation efforts around the U.S. elections had escalated in the previous 45 days. The Russian operations — which included campaigns from at least 70 Russia-affiliated activity sets —  demonstrated “renewed focus on undermining U.S. support for Ukraine,” along with anti-NATO narratives and messaging intended to exacerbate internal U.S. social and political tensions.

In the same month, MTAC also identified a malign influence threat from China. In a released report, MTAC explained that Beijing “will, at a minimum, create and amplify AI-generated content that benefits their positions” in the context of U.S. elections, but also regarding South Korea and India. The report warned that the Chinese Communist Party’s  longtime “Spamouflage” online influence operation had begun to use large language models to generate content at scale, especially regarding Taiwan and Canada.

Shortly before Microsoft’s warning about China, the U.S. State Department published a report on China describing billions of dollars of foreign information manipulation efforts. The State Department explained that “the PRC’s approach to information manipulation includes leveraging propaganda and censorship, promoting digital authoritarianism, exploiting international organizations and bilateral partnerships, pairing cooptation and pressure, and exercising control of Chinese-language media.”

Just weeks after its warning about Doppelgänger, Recorded Future revealed a new discovery of a Russia-linked group called CopyCop, which used a large language model to generate over 19,000 false news stories online in just a few months. The report outlined that “the AI-powered network plagiarizes mainstream media content, turns it into politically biased propaganda, and automatically spreads it around using inauthentic media outlets in the U.S., UK, or France” – impersonating news outlets like al-Jazeera, Fox News, La Croix and TV5Monde.

The U.S. government replied publicly to Russia’s threats by sanctioning two Russian companies and their owners for association with Doppelgänger. But, by April, the Doppelgänger and CopyCop narratives seemed to have already reached their targets. House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner told the media that “We see, directly coming from Russia, attempts to mask communications that are anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia messages, some of which we even hear being uttered on the House floor.” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul went further, telling reporters, “Russian propaganda has made its way into the U.S., unfortunately, and it’s infected a good chunk of my party’s base.”

Since the end of the Cold War – that short moment of peace that lent a false sense of American invulnerability – the U.S. has devalued its information capabilities. Without challengers, there was little urgency to defend its position, and seemingly little cause to defend the fidelity of its internal narratives. With the internet and social media came a gradual rebalancing of informational power, enabling global competitors to voice their countervailing positions and form new coalitions. The U.S. is currently experiencing this uncontrolled narrative competition, including deception and manipulation by aspirational state and non-state actors. The appearance of foreign-backed narratives in the U.S.’s unprotected national dialogue shouldn’t be too surprising.

This is sponsored content.  Consider publishing your national security-related, thought leadership content in The Cipher Brief, with a monthly audience reach of more than 500K national security influencers from the public and private sectors.  Drop us a note at [email protected].

Domestically, a fight over free speech and market dynamics typically limit effective U.S. efforts to referee the information space. The ill-fated Disinformation Governance Board — unforgiven for its bad marketing — may be the most glaring example of the partisan attacks affecting U.S. informational institutions. Then accusations of censorship leveled at members of the Executive Branch by a political activist group forced any aggressive work against foreign malign influence into the shadows. The national political stalemate also means that any meaningful legislation to counter the many factors abetting malign influence, such as media illiteracy, is pushed down to the states to debate — often in deadlocked legislatures. To exacerbate the situation further, all of this is happening in a country that has lost nearly 2,900 local newspapers and almost two-thirds of its newspaper journalists since 2005. The result of this is that there are fewer outlets willing to report on stories that might disturb sponsors or advertisers.

Yet, amid this crisis, there may be opportunity. U.S. solutions to the problem of malign influence among Americans may be feasible when they consciously avoid judging the subjective truth of information and instead focus on the objective quality of information. Recent studies by MIT scholars into the effectiveness of efforts to counter misinformation have shown that offering opportunities to deliberately apply careful reasoning and relevant knowledge to an issue helps lead a person to more accurate decisions about a topic or narrative. Making those resources available, in an easy-to-use online system, is key to enabling accuracy of deduction while avoiding infringement of free speech. Similar principles have been successfully tested and implemented as government-sponsored programs, despite the complexities of the current information space.

One of the most promising initiatives in this space is the Trust In Media (TIM) Cooperative. Led by the Hon. Ellen McCarthy, TIM is enabling national access to quality information, with a strategic objective of restoring trust in U.S. processes and institutions. Information Quality (InQ) is defined as the degree to which data or information is accurate, reliable, relevant, complete, and timely. 

TIM’s efforts have been organized into three key focuses. The cooperative is exploring and evaluating proven and existing indicators and measurements for InQ standards. Another TIM team is identifying plausible, reliable, and diverse data sets to inform measurements and determine whether specific information meets TIM’s InQ standards. As these focuses reach completion, another team will work toward consensus and finalizing essential InQ standards based on a comprehensive and collaborative review, assessment, and deliberation.

TIM supporters David Bray and Vint Cerf recently wrote that with digital advances comes a new challenge to discern credible digital information and that organizations in the technology sector have a responsibility to advance tools and standards to help address this growing issue. TIM’s information quality effort is an important part of a suite of solutions, which must address the very human problem of vulnerability to malign influence.

This is particularly urgent right now. The effect of foreign malign influence on voters is very real. Purposeful foreign narratives resound among the attendees of American political events, left and right. Ironically, these unwitting agents of foreign manipulation often call for better critical thinking skills among their political adversaries. But, in reality, these “calls” are typically a tactic to validate their own viewpoint. Solutions to these problems of discernment start with supplying high-quality information, without subjective judgment, in a way that is easily usable by all. There is disagreement about solutions, but without impartial improvements to the underlying conditions of our national dialogue, discord is guaranteed.

Today’s constant barrage of information makes it easy for countries to wage disinformation campaigns, and your emotions are the weapon of choice.  Learn how to recognize disinformation and protect democracy around the world in this short video. This is one link you can feel good about sharing.

Categorized as:Alternative Perspectives Tech/CyberTagged with:

Related Articles