It's time to act together to fight against the manipulation of information

It's time to act together to fight against the manipulation of information
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Disinformation has long been used by states, organizations, or groups to support their ambitions, interests or ideologies. But in the social media era, the threat is reaching new heights. A recent report from the University of Oxford underlines the scale of the problem, finding that 70 countries have been confronted by political disinformation campaigns in the past two years, more than double the previous level.

Disinformation is an old tool of choice for states. One of the best-known examples is Operation Fortitude, part of the broader deception strategy that misled the Nazis about the Allies’ landings in Normandy. However, the growth of the internet in the 1990s gave birth to a new paradigm, where information manipulation is no longer the exclusive arena of states. Small groups or networked individuals are now also able to launch extensive disinformation campaigns against targets including states, international organizations and large companies.

This is a clear and existential threat for democracies in the digital age. The omnipresence of social media means fake news can spread swiftly in a multitude of locations around the globe. It’s becoming more difficult for democracies to protect themselves from sophisticated attacks from both state and nonstate actors.

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This threat affects every level of modern democracies: people, public organizations and private companies. The democratic system itself is feeling the pressure, particularly in the run-up to elections. A recent, well-researched study by a French think tank examined this in detail, focusing on the organized boycott of targeted companies in Morocco in April 2018. The paper examines the goals, organization and tools used by the perpetrators of an ideologically and politically driven information manipulation campaign, considering how it could affect Morocco’s 2021 elections to the benefit of extremists.

The takeaway from the rise of disinformation campaigns is that democratic states are poorly prepared to face them down, for many reasons.

First, the core principle of freedom of speech and information prevents democracies from restricting those rights in an effort to protect themselves.

Second, the internet is regarded by democracies as a common, global, open network, in contrast to the attitude of authoritarian regimes, which seek to restrict the population’s access to information.

Third, giant private technology companies run global social media according to their own rules, which is made possible by the absence of international norms aimed at the digital space and its applications.

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Fourth, digital ambiguity benefits the manipulators of information, making it hard to formally attribute the origin of disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks.

Fifth, the attackers can exploit the rapid progress of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and advanced computer-assisted designs to create very credible false scenarios, including fake voices and fake video clips: so-called ‘deep fakes.’

Finally, no matter what states, organizations, companies or individuals do to rebut false information, its destabilizing objective is often achieved immediately after its release in the political bloodstream. Disinformation is quickly amplified though conspiracy theory networks or by paid cybercrime actors who stand ready to manipulate information as a service.

Faced with these challenges, how should democracies respond? Should we just accept disinformation as part of our digital fate? Should we try to mitigate its effects through fact-checking campaigns only, despite their somewhat limited impact? On the contrary: it’s time to fight back, defending our values and principles for future generations.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for winning the information war we are engaged in. First and foremost, democracies must recognize disinformation as a major existential threat, putting it at the top of both their national agendas and the programs of international organizations like the UN, EU, NATO and the OSCE. They should direct intelligence and security agencies and trusted private companies to work together in identifying disinformation networks, accelerating the attribution process and putting in place convincing narratives.

Every effort should be made to boost prevention by using new tools supported by the latest technologies. AI has a great role to play, helping to identify ‘weak signals’ and patterns, nodes and origins of disinformation, as well as correlating apparently unrelated events and actions that contribute to the same destabilizing aim. Governments must also stimulate new forms of interagency cooperation at national and international levels, sharing real-time intelligence information and synergizing their responses.

The outcome of the information battle will rely on a common proactive endeavor, starting at the highest political level and involving states and private companies. These efforts must capitalize on human expertise, supported by advanced technologies.

It’s time for nations on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world to take action. It’s time to recognize disinformation as a prominent threat in the digital age. It’s time to regain the initiative and win the crucial battle for facts and evidence-based truth, for freedom and genuine information. The future of our democracies depends on it.

General Jean-Paul Palomeros is former NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation (2012-2015) and former Chief of Staff of the French Air Force (2009-2012); he currently serves as an independent consultant and member of the French American Foundation.