Government, private industry, academia, and civil society needs to come together to fight weaponized content on the internet.
Terrorist propaganda and state-sponsored disinformation have become prominent challenges for governments and tech companies.
Two overarching questions must be answered to win this fight:
● How can we advance cooperative technological opportunities between stakeholders to help solve the problems of foreign propaganda, disinformation, and radicalization to violence?
● How do we identify emerging market-driven technologies and novel combinations of technologies for use against foreign propaganda, disinformation, and radicalization to violence?
To begin tackling these massive challenges, the US Department of State’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) held a private first-of-its-kind conference at the UN convening government agents and technologists in the fight against terrorist propaganda and state-sponsored disinformation.
For more background on the issue check out CB Insights’ analysis on the future of information warfare.
While there are no easy answers to these questions, without a doubt collaboration will be key to winning the fight. That is, the US Government, private industry, academia, and civil society will all have to work together for us to have a shot at containing bad actors online.
Below we look at some of the most important findings from the conference.
Each of us has a role to play
Government: The GEC’s mission is to “lead, synchronize, and coordinate… to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts …” Essentially, the government’s primary role is to serve as orchestra director for the diverse symphony of tools and teams tackling this problem. While this is the mission of GEC, government has a further opportunity to go beyond coordinating people and resources. Government can identify emerging technological solutions and help inventors and entrepreneurs scale those solutions.
Private industry: Industry players include both startups and corporations.
- Nimble startups have an opportunity to create new technologies for tracking the flow of foreign propaganda online. We are seeing an emerging cadre of entrepreneurs tackle the propaganda issue by harvesting and analyzing open-source data from social media companies. These data-sleuths are working to tag and track malicious content to measure impacts and trace harmful content back to its origin. Startups at the GEC conference expressed collective challenges dealing with social media companies in this regard. They noted a lack of transparency for the process of revealing findings and some even expressed fear when it comes to revealing harsh findings to corporations.
- Large companies, especially social media giants, bare a significant amount of the responsibility for combating the spread of disinformation and foreign propaganda online. Companies like Facebook and Google’s YouTube own and administer some of the primary pathways through which much of the world’s digital propaganda flows. Moving forward these companies will need to make concerted efforts to show that they are being transparent with how they are tackling this problem. As a first step, Facebook recently released data on its 2.2 billion users that will help academics study the effects of social media on elections and democracy.
Academia: University teams have a unique role to play in this fight. Academics have the capacity to analyze and understand complex problems over long periods of time. However, acquiring the data needed to perform analyses and then recommending meaningful actions (outside the ivory tower) is often very difficult. Moving forward, academics will need to partner with private industry players to lobby corporations for access to proprietary data as well as to help each other push for change in corporations when their findings clearly point to the need for reform.
Civil society: Citizen researchers are on the front lines in the fight against digital propaganda and misinformation online. These individuals leverage skills in advertising, analytics, and data science to root out destructive digital content on their own dime. These independent information warriors are often our first line of defense against the manipulation of narrative in the wake of a crisis. For example, after a mass-shooting in the US we often see internet trolls from all corners of the globe light up on Twitter to capitalize on spreading fake news and propaganda. We have also seen private citizens take to the platform to track down this kind of malicious activity.
The fight is only just beginning
The future of combating disinformation and propaganda is uncertain but there are opportunities to fix these problems. The GEC conference showed that a powerful cohort of government, private industry, academia, and civil society are making progress in this long-term fight. Still, all of these groups have their work cut out for them. In the future, convening the brightest minds to solve one of the most difficult problems of our time will be essential, even if it may not be sufficient on its own.