America must improve defense against Russia's information warfare
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With the second month of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE’s presidency closed, the Russia issue continues to drag on the White House. In testimony for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), FBI Director James Comey made it clear that the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division has opened an investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

"I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts," Comey said at the hearing.

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The question that matters is the degree to which Russia employed its intelligence services to purloin confidential information from the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party as well as how it used stolen information and disinformation to sway public opinion. Moving forward, the FBI must determine whether there was there any collusion between Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign. Basically, what the public should know is whether or not the Trump campaign received aid from the Russian Intelligence Services as part of its opposition research operations. This is a serious matter.

 

While the NSA and FBI will be extremely reluctant to share many details of their intelligence and counter-intelligence operations regarding Russia (see the December 2016 FBI-DHS report on the election), those outside the Intelligence Community can begin to grasp the second item, the significance of propaganda operations undertaken by Moscow to attempt to influence – not steal – the 2016 election. Yes there was hacking at the DNC and elsewhere, but it was most likely part of a far larger campaign to influence opinion of the American voting public.

The bad news in all of this is that the U.S. and other Western democracies appear woefully unprepared to blunt or deter Russian propaganda. The Russians have all sorts of domestic information controls, but we largely don’t. That does not mean other elements of civil society – academics, activists, and technologists – can’t begin to identify and flag propaganda floated through gray sources, however.

How might this work? My colleagues and I have been studying not disinformation but Internet censorship by repressive regimes for more than a decade. We scrape massive troves of data from open platforms such as Twitter and collect news stories looking for the suppression of information. One branch of our research is a chronicle of Turkey’s slide from liberal democracy to a repressive one-party state that jails academics and journalists.

Today, we are applying our techniques to better understand how Moscow and its proxies attempt to subvert elections across Europe and beyond. If government can’t develop effective counter-propaganda strategies in the short term, others may attempt to do so. Facebook is certainly thinking about the issue.

Congress, the IC, the DoD, and the State Department should be working to craft counter-propaganda techniques and tools to protect our highly interconnected information society. The sooner the United States and its allies address the problem and begin shooting down specious news sources, the greater the chances that trust in government institutions may be rebound (although lots of other work is required).

The alternative is bleak. As one defense thinker posited more than 20 years ago as the Internet began to connect hundreds of millions, “In a society under assault across its entire infosphere, it will be increasingly difficult for members of that society to verify internally the truth or accuracy of anything.”

Such thinking strikes a chord with advice from Adm. Mike Rogers that the American electorate may want to consider before going to the polls again. He asserted, “[I]f I spent time in this job worrying about un-sourced media reporting, I'd never get any work done.” We need the mechanisms to deprecate disinformation and discard a political system that is sometimes too influenced by party loyalty and “alternative facts.”

Chris Bronk, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of computer and information systems at the University of Houston. He was previously a software developer, Foreign Service Officer, and fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy.


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