(Greek: κρυπτεία / krupteía, from κρυπτός / kruptós, “hidden, secret things”)

Archive for December 9th, 2018

Primer: Your Algorithms Won’t Save You: Why We Need More Sociology and Psychology in The Fight Against Online Disinformation & Propaganda

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Well, it has been a few days since presenting to SOFWERX and having put up my slide deck on the blog and I got to thinking that without a video, you all kind of need a primer on what I was trying to say with this. Come to think of it, even with the video you might need some more clarification as I don’t know if I just came off as a raving loon on stage or not. Anyway, I have decided to put this post together as a primer for those who do not get to see the video.

SOFWERX Presentation Deck

My general premise with this presentation is as follows put simply: “Countering disinformation and propaganda operations is a people problem, not a technical one.”

While the others at SOFWERX were presenting technical means of tracking and perhaps countering disinformation campaigns online, I wanted to highlight the fact that the problem lies with the humans at the keyboards or in front of the screens are the issue that we should take up trying to counter this activity. It is the people who are being manipulated and their psyche’s which are allowing this to happen. There are social and psychological issues at play and no matter the attempts at countering, those people susceptible to the campaign will in the end, believe what is being sent to them. We need to understand why these people choose to accept these narratives and to perpetuate them before we can attempt to really fight this fight. There are so many issues here and even if we try to play whack a mole with adversaries pumping these false narratives into the system, we will lose in the end because the sticky meme or message will inevitably get out and repeated by those of a like mind.

I personally saw this activity play out early on with the Jihad online. Jihadi’s have been using social media since it’s inception and before that, they were using list servers and RSS groups to do the same thing. This activity is easy to carry out with access to the internet and there are a plethora of venues to get the message out with. In the case of the jihadi’s online we saw them use PHP sites, Twitter, Facebook, and now closed systems like Telegram and PalTalk to carry out recruitment and planning. The media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook’s attempts to whack them offline did not fully succeed, in fact they are still around and adapting to get their message out to the believers. In fact, you can see a direct line of progression from using channels (social media) to creating their own channels (Inspire and Dabiq) magazines that they can upload to various places to propagandize and disinform the jihadi’s as well as their adversaries.

Simply put, whack a mole does not work. In an effort that was more subtle and along the lines of thought I will give you in this presentation, the US government tried a program called “Think Again and Turn Away” which ostensibly was an effort to reason with and perhaps psychologically respond to those who might be tempted by jihad to consider the realities and talk them off the ledge so to speak. The program was not funded well and in the end kind of failed, but, it was an important footnote that needs to be given more attention as it dealt with the receivers of the message of jihad. We are faced with much the same problem today in that we have people in countries like the US who are targets of foreign influence operations that are not necessarily combatants in a war but are assets of influence and thus a danger to the larger whole.

The parallels can be seen today with regard to the influence operations that the Russians carried out on the US and the factions that have been created with the rise of Trumpism. Now we have the IRA (Internet Research Agency) and it’s second generation still carrying out operations online as well as the receivers of the narrative creating new platforms outside of Twitter and Facebook to repeat as well as generate new ones like the Qanon movement. While the social media companies finally caught on and started patrolling content and accounts, the IRA has created other sites to push their narratives both stealth and open in nature. The one commonality is that there are always minds willing to accept the content and to repeat it. This is the problem set that we need to approach and see if there are any countermeasures to this outside of trying to control the medium and the message. You see, by controlling the medium and the message, we become a part of the problem and likely add fuel to the fire by becoming Orwellian in the perception of the people.

Most of the talks at SOFWERX centered on using the technology of algorithms to control the narrative or stop the narrative and this is not in my opinion the best alternative. After all, the more you try and control all of this, the more you are going to be made into the latest conspiracy theory. If you try to insert counter narratives surreptitiously eventually you will be caught out and become a means to an end for the information operations teams sowing the discord. Alternatively, how do you fight things like meme’s and cognitive bias/dissonance in the people who are willing to believe in things like Flat Earth theory or that there are Lizard people secretly running the governments of the world? We need to understand the human animal better from psychological and sociological standpoints to counter these kinds of operations. Until we do more study and come up with countermeasures using this, we will just continue on playing whack a mole ad nauseum all the while the disinformation will flow and our fractions will increase.

I guess overall I would just like the technical and the more soft sciences to get together and work the problem instead of just believing that technical means are the answer to everything.

They aren’t.

*mic drop*


Written by Krypt3ia

2018/12/09 at 13:53

Posted in Disinformation