Countering Computational Propaganda
There is something new happening in computer science and social media. It is computational propaganda. Computational propaganda is the use of computer information systems for political purposes according to the journal Big Data. This would also include the efforts of governments to influence public opinion of another country in order to change the foreign relations and policy of that country or to cause dissent of citizens against their government.
The first step and most important to take is to realize that propaganda is real. And then to admit that propaganda does impact the thought process of citizens. So I will start with the first step of describing computational propaganda and then ways to computationally identify it.
Elements of Computational Propaganda
There are various elements to computational propaganda that I will attempt to outline. Some of the elements include: algorithms, automation, human curation source, artificial intelligence, social media bots, sock puppets, troll farms, cyber attacks and stolen information, disinformation and data science.
This new generation of propaganda has gone through a process of computerized automation. It is not totally automated but computers, networks and the internet have made it possible to deliver it in an automated manner. It is also enabling the delivery in a personal manner, in a way that makes it seem to be coming from a real human. Technology is also making strides in the automatic production of propaganda.
Previously propaganda was slower moving and required getting news and editorials published. One used to have to own or control media outlets and then put people in place to spread disinformation. Our new modern way of spreading information online with social media has lowered the cost of spreading propaganda.
What is propaganda?
Propaganda is not just pure lies and conspiracy theories. It has come a long way from the Nazi and the communist USSR mode of operation that might obvious to us now. Current propaganda is infused with truth although it is also either partly true or out of context in hidden ways to individual audiences. This information can now be tailored and targeted at individuals. Often this information is geared to lead people to action as all good propaganda should.
Jacques Ellul in Propaganda The formation of Men’s Attitudes says that it is difficult to determine what propaganda is because it is a “secret action”. Ellul finds it impossible to pin down an exact definition of propaganda that did not take up an entire book. Our society has propaganda baked in that we are not aware of. In short, propaganda for Ellul covered the following areas:
- Psychological Action – seeks to modify opinions by pure psychological methods
- Psychological Warfare – destroy the morale of an adversary so that the opponent begins to doubt the validity of his beliefs and actions
- Brainwashing – only used on prisoners to turn enemies to allies
- Public and Human Relations – These group activities are also propaganda as they seek to adapt a person to a society. As we will see foreign governments use this technique in social media today.
Ellul says: “modern propaganda is based on scientific analysis of psychology and sociology… the propagandist builds his techniques on the basis of his knowledge of man” Then the effects of the propaganda are measured for results and refined.
These thoughts written in 1956 have only continued to be refined. They are now at work on the internet and in social media. And now there is a faster way to measure the results with computers and tracking of online activity.
In reality, there are competing propaganda efforts happening online. There is a democratic propaganda that competes with anti-democratic strains and militant islamic ones also.
Computational Propaganda in Action
But to take a step back I want to outline what this looks like online at the moment as I understand it.
Computational propaganda burst onto the awareness of the public during the 2016 US presidential election and continues today. This effort by Russian actors over many years and I will outline some of the features that are computational in nature. The entire propaganda system is co-dependant but attempts to hide as disconnected entities.
Recently it has been reported that Russian based accounts on Facebook and Twitter have been spreading propaganda to divide the American public. They used Facebook to support both sides of the Black Lives Matter protests, promote gun rights and anti-immigration. This has also been observed on Reddit and Twitter. Some accounts were bots or semi-automated bots and other accounts were used to purchase targeted advertisements.
One element was stealing information through cyber attacks and social engineering. This exhibited itself in the taking of information from the Democratic National Convention and utilizing classified leaks given to WikiLeaks.
Personal information on American citizens by foreign intelligence services has been stolen. Security questionnaires were taken by Chinese services. And recently credit information was appropriated in addition to voter rolls from an unknown number of states during the elections. This personal information is alleged to have enabled the more precise targeting of propaganda to specific populations.
Then this information was selectively transformed into propaganda by taking it out of context and targeting it at select audiences. I can assume that producers of the propaganda used computer software to search the massive amounts of information that was stolen. Then they edited the most damaging of the information to refine it for maximum effect on specific audiences.
This was also the case for the efforts of the Trump campaign where they took comments damaging to an opponent and targeted voter suppression ads at specific people. Social media ad networks and databases were used in these efforts. These systems allow anyone to target a message at thousands of different personal identifiers, location and income brackets. This can be done on Facebook and Twitter.
Targeting Ad on Facebook
The advertisement above is being targeted at people in NY City who engage with liberal political content and have a net worth between 1 million and 2 million.
In addition there are stores of personal data that was correlated with computational algorithms to determine specific personality traits of individuals. Using this information messaging was crafted and target it at psychological vulnerabilities of individuals to change their thinking or push them to action. source
The Troll Factory
On top of this paid targeting there are places called troll factories where armies of people engage in social interactions on social media and blogs. There is one of these in St. Petersburg called The Factory. People will engage with online content to discredit it with propaganda techniques such as “whataboutism”. This is where people contest valid facts by pointing out a perceived hypocrisy on the other side of the issue. They will also attempt to generate fake news to cause panic in a particular community.
Bots and Sock Puppets
These efforts combine with a computational technique of online bots, trolls and sock puppets. Sock puppets are online fake personas. They appear to be real people online often appearing as Americans but they just broadcast propaganda.
Bots are pieces of software that perform online tasks. They may just pickup other people’s messages on line and rebroadcast them. Other bots are more human like and engage in conversations. They often search for keywords in conversations and generate a “whatboutism” or some disparaging message to confuse readers. There are other bots that are semi-automated. Once these are challenged as being bots or have a question they cannot respond to, a human will intervene and manually provide responses.
These bots and sock puppet accounts often work as a team. They will gang up on conversations and re-broadcast each others messages. The goal is to make their message seem mainstream by its volume or popularity. They can confuse rational conversations and arguments online by misdirecting them and triggering emotional responses.
Suppression of Speech Bots
Recently bots have been suppressing messaging from people who are attempting to get out messages to counter disinformation. In the case of Brian Krebs who was attacking the messaging of bots that support Putin they tricked Twitter into disabling Brians account. They did this by causing thousands of accounts to follow him and then retweet his tweets in mass. This effort caused Twitter to automatically assume that Brian was paying bots to promote his account. So they turned it off.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are additional computation techniques being weaponized in this information battle. Not only is AI used to automate bots to appear human but it also can to create messaging content. Artificial intelligence processes source documents or training data. Then programmers configure the system to output new messages. It multiplies the efforts of a human to generate new content. This output is then curated or even tested out online. This validates the effectiveness of the content. This feedback loop is used to create more effective triggers for people.
Attacking the Disenfranchised
Often these efforts to trigger action leverage marginalized groups in society. The bots and troll factories can take domestic content and amplify it for their own purposes. It has been shown that Russian based bots often rebroadcast messages that attempt to increase divisions in US citizens. Hamilton68 illustrates these efforts.
This is a dashboard that tracks known Russian bots and exposes what they are promoting. Often this is anything that breeds mistrust in the US government and pits groups against each other.
Some countries also invest in traditional media like newspapers,radio and television stations to broadcast messages. They attempt to make this look like real news but it is actually disinformation and propaganda. This “news” is picked up as legitimate by other news outlets and rebroadcast. People who buy into the messaging with use the source as proof of their opinions.
Propagandists often use current running conspiracy theories to oppose competing messages or true news. They neutralize the opposition by coming up with a secret conspiracy or amplifying one in circulation.
Recently The DailyBeast reported that Russian operatives organized and promoted rallies on Facebook. This illustrates the purpose of propaganda which is to move people to action. Once they are acting on the beliefs pushed by the propaganda it can tip into political action.
At the moment in the US propaganda from Russia seems aimed at changing the foreign policy of the US government. The Russians have secured the information space of their citizens in an authoritarian way that is not acceptable in American society. And they have leveraged the lack of privacy controls in the American capitalist system, where information about people is sold for marketing purposes. It seems that Russian propaganda efforts are only aimed at the destruction of democracy or western values according to Chris Zappone of The Age
There are hundreds of ideas on how to counter this online propaganda. Some are government policies, industry self policing and educational programs. But I want to focus on countermeasures that are computational. In effect an attempt to fight fire with fire.
One way to minimize the impact of propaganda is to have tools that alert an individual of the event. Another type of computational tool is one that allows a community to monitor what others in their community are being targeted with. This can prevent individual weaknesses from being exploited. There are efforts underway in this space but there are opportunities for continual improvement.
Ideas from Volume
- A dark advertisement exposure network. Volunteers install browser agents to gather ads and put them in a public searchable database with the targeting criteria. Could also use fake personas to collect advertisements.
- Public searchable databases of bots and sock puppets identified by computational techniques, such as time of day analysis, linguistic patterns and rebroadcasting behaviours.
- The bot collection database would also hold the relationships between accounts, messages and motives.
- Computational methods software package to identify bots that pretend to be human and out them as bots on the social media
- Browser plug-in that will show a user the motives of a bot and expose a network of bots that link or help each other. It enables a person to ignore and discount ideas coming from that entity.
In a blog post Colin Crowell, Twitter’s vice president of public policy, government and philanthropy, said in a blog post that Twitter itself is a “powerful antidote to the spreading of all types of false information” and “journalists, experts and engaged citizens Tweet side-by-side correcting and challenging public discourse in seconds.”
The issue with this is that the bots are programmatically generating information using artificial intelligence or have armies of cheap labor. How can citizens and journalists keep up with researching and debunking half truths, obvious lies and nonsense?
Perhaps we need to build counter bot networks. Of course, ones that fit into the social media companies terms of service.
(more ideas from Volume Integration)
- Bots that disrupt bot networks by sending trigger words to them and keep them busy and away from meaningful conversations.
- Bots that look for disinformation and hoaxes and broadcast information to debunk it
- Artificial intelligence social bots that can automatically research messaging from propaganda bots and counter the messaging
- Crafting fact checking messaging to target back at organizations running troll factories and bot networks
- A force of vetted volunteers that could perform analysis tasks to find bots and propagandists and then write counter arguments to them
Of course this rests on the concept of analysis so we would need tools to visualize the data and perform the human effort needed to find relationships and motives of the actors. Some of this effort would be utilizing the many algorithms already designed to detect bots and online propaganda. In addition Volume Integration has a tool that can help monitor and alert on social media account activity and messaging. See our products.
At the end of the post is a list of papers on methods and analysis techniques to find automated bots online.
One factor in recent propaganda has been the ability for bad actors to obtain classified or private information. In this case we need better cyber security is needed. Sometimes the information is gathered via social engineering. Outside actors manipulate a person inside an organization into providing the information or access to the computer systems.
Ideas from Volume
- Separate internal corporate networks from the internet
- Increase Cybersecurity methods and policies (patching schedules, inventory control, multiple factor authentication, firewalls, packet inspection, audits)
- Trust / Risk Verification Systems like Volume Analytics which monitor events on a computer network to alert on unauthorized or risky behaviour.
I am afraid that there is no real collusion. We are at the beginning of our abilities to counter computational propaganda. It is going to be an arms race as tactics and systems change. Technology and technique will breed more technology and technique. I hope we are able to separate out the false information and come a bit closer to truth. In the end, it will be the next phase of human conflict and manipulation to gain power and wealth over personal freedom.
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