Weaponizing the truth: the fake news antidote?

There are still not many good answers for combating so-called information operations.

As lawmakers worked recently to get a better handle on both what transpired in the presidential election and how best to address alleged Russian influence operations, expert witnesses tried to offer their best assessments of how to move forward.

Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute appearing before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity April 27, offered the idea of an information "consumer report," an agency apart from the government, similar to other consumer reports that would rate all media outlets over time and give them a score based on their accuracy in reporting. The scores would appear on social media, where news is frequently posted and shared.

These reports, and the standards by which media organizations would be judged, would be openly available and placed next to every article on social media "so if the consumer wants to read about aliens invading the U.S., they can, but they know the accuracy of that is about 10 percent" from that outlet, Watts said. Similar to nutrition labels on food, consumers would still have the choice of what information to consume, but if they want to eat a 10,000-calorie meal, they will know why the information they're consuming is not good for them, he said.

For example, based upon his own research and assessment, he would rate RT, which the U.S. intelligence community described as heavily supported by and funded by the Russian government, as 70 percent true, 20 percent manipulated truth and 10 percent false.

What can the government do?

"I think cost imposition will be the weaker of the two," Chris Inglis, former deputy director at the National Security Agency, told the subcommittee regarding employing a deterrence by denial or cost imposition approach to combat information operations.

He referenced a recent op-ed about why is Finland not concerned about Russian interference in their election. It’s not because Russia is not interfering in their election, Inglis said, but rather they understand the means and methods by which Russia operates, thus making it easier for them to identify what the Russians are up to.

More importantly, he added, Finland has defined their own plan and strategy, and they take great pains to communicate that.

"I think that’s deterrence by denial in the information war," he said, noting this theory can help the U.S. combat it.

Michael Lumpkin, former acting under secretary of defense for policy, told the subcommittee that language in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act expanding the mission of the Global Engagement Center, or GEC, was a step in the right direction. However, "the sobering fact is we are still far from where we need to be to successfully operate and have influence in the modern information environment," added Lumpkin, who leads the GEC, established via executive order under President Obama to counter terrorist messaging and propaganda.

Watts said the government can work to have rapid response teams to provide live footage and facts to counter potential propaganda attempts made by certain outlets. Using the example of the fake news item pushed by RT regarding an attack on Incirlik air base in Turkey in last year, he said the State Department could have provided real-time live footage of the base and said there is increased security because the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was going there.

Additionally, Watts noted that the first people he would hire to combat fake news would be those who created and pushed it. If they’re good at making fake news for clicks and getting ad revenue, they’d be the best to say what fake news is and detect it, he said. The government could say to them that they were doing some nefarious things, which could be rectified by revealing if others are doing something similar.

The fact that there is not a clear path forward in terms of a governmental response was evidenced by the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who said at the hearing that Congress is learning and most members don’t know much about cybersecurity.

"Our goal here is to get results," he said, adding they are trying to learn it and make good decisions.

Rounds told C4ISRNET sister publication Defense Newsthat while Russian information operations aren’t new, the use of the cyber dimension is.

"Our interest is exploring what their capabilities are, getting a situational awareness of Russian capabilities and Chinese capabilities — comparing that with our capabilities, our strengths and our weaknesses," he said. "One of our next steps will be to look at information campaigns, how other countries do it, and that will be an open-source meeting. That's maybe the next thing we’d like to do."

From a military perspective, the focus on information operationsis typically concerned with ensuring the security and validity of data. The services are reorganizingthemselves to consolidate and leverage similar operations domains tying together cyberspace operations, electromagnetic spectrum operations and information operations.

"We have to recognize: How does that influence how we’re going to fight? From an influence standpoint, what are they doing with information? From a cybersecurity standpoint, how do we ensure our war fighters have faith in data? … We have to have confidence in our data," said Maj. Gen. Patricia Frost, who leads the Army’s cyber directorate within the G-3/5/7.

The role of the private sector

Private companies have a significant role to play in what some have described as a whole-of-nation approach, given that much of the information spread by Russian information operations was spread via commercial social media websites.

Some private sector companies in recent months have "made great strides in restoring the integrity of information by reaffirming their purity of their systems, Watts told the subcommittee.

He said Facebook, Google and even Wikipedia now have launched efforts that could make a big difference.

In fact, Facebook this week released a report that sought to define the problem and address solutions titled " Information Operations and Facebook." Facebook says it defines information operations as "actions taken by organized actors (governments or non-state actors) to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome. These operations can use a combination of methods, such as false news, disinformation, or networks of fake accounts aimed at manipulating public opinion (we refer to these as ‘false amplifiers’)."

Watts noted, however, that Twitter is the one company he’s still waiting to hear from regarding policies and changes to their posts and information. If Twitter takes a similar approach to Facebook, Google and others, the company's actions could help shape the Russian influence in the French and German elections going into the summer, Watts said.

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