What to do with disinformation mercenaries?

The mercenary group #TeamJorge, running influence operations and covertly interfering in elections around the world have been subject to wide coverage. In this article, Omri Preiss, managing director of Alliance4Europe and vice-chair of the DISARM-Foundation, lays out what it needs to stop disinformers from manipulating our democracies.

Excellent investigative journalism like what we've seen from Forbidden Stories, together with a coalition of newspapers, shows in vivid detail what we’ve known about the disinformation industry for a long time. We can only hope that the exposure will neutralise some of Jorge’s capacity to act, and provide more momentum for meaningful action. However, although the temptation is great, it is important not to play whack-a-moll and chase after disinformation campaigns and mercenaries. Rather, we need to set an ambitious agenda, and shift the ground under disinformers, with coordinated action.

The following is a prospect of how that might look like

1) You can’t manage what you can’t measure. We need a common language to share data and analysis on disinformation and to coordinate action at scale. That requires shared definitions of tactics and threats across a community of those fighting disinformation. If communication and misinformation are being used as a weapon by state and non-state actors, the defense against it needs to be organized accordingly. Defending your values in a communication war means you need the right equipment and the appropriate communication systems. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here, the cybersecurity field has already tackled the problem. That’s why the open source DISARM Foundation framework of disinformation behaviours applies cybersecurity methods and tools. This is a crucial step because without data sharing and coordination, we’d be doomed to just making individual observations without effective action – “admiring the problem” (Pablo Breuer, Ph.D.) instead of solving it. Once analysis sharing and coordination are possible and scalable, opportunities arise. We have had some fantastic work on this by European External Action Service, The European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats & European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA). This recent reporting on #TeamJorge illustrates meticulously exactly how cyberattacks drive and combine with disinformation & influence campaigns - it is right to use the same cybersecurity approaches and tools to tackle these. Working with partners like the Alfred Landecker Foundation, Public Democracy, and MITRE has advanced this approach.

2) When the tools for coordination are there, it’s crucial to get them out to the community of democracy defenders - civil society organisations, human rights defenders, communicators, campaigners, journalists, advocates, businesses who take responsibility for their social impact. Strategic communications, effective campaigning in real time, and tangible measures against disinformation have a far-reach real systemic impact. For example, compare the experience of two Russian invasions of Ukraine, one in 2014, and one in 2022 – in the first, Russian government disinformation succeeded, and the international community failed to act. In the second, Ukrainians effectively countered Kremlin disinformation towards Europe and English-speaking audiences. The attention for pro-Russian disinformation attacks is much greater and therefore also reactions a lot more coordinated. The same is true for civic tech tools for citizen participation, voter turnout, and citizen action overall. A functioning democracy relies upon informed citizens - and we need to take action to be informed with truthful information. Authoritarian lies are based on fear, hate, and victimisation. Active citizenship requires hope.

3) We need to take immediate action to fight disinformation in the long run - which also requires long-term funding. This is a precondition for raising the level of the public debate overall, making sure our society can make democratic decisions through conversation about reality and not fiction. We need media literacy and citizenship education as a vaccine against authoritarianism and disinformation. As AI is on the rise, human creativity and understanding are most important – education is key in all walks of life and all stages of life, in schools and outside of them. That’s why projects like Public Editor are so crucially important. Where tactics and countermeasures are a sword against disinformation, media literacy education is the shield says Nicholas Brigham Adams, Ph.D. of Public Editor (a project of Goodly Labs and the Berkeley Institute for Data Science)

4) Our digital eco-system needs to change. That is only possible if we adapt our legislation that sets democratic values, human rights and well-being at the heart of how these technologies are used. That is where Europe can and often does take the lead. But this legislation is incredibly complex, full of unexpected dilemmas, trade-offs, and paradoxes. Different actors and different perspective need to get around the table for outcomes that are both ambitious and effective, and that really do deliver the desired outcomes. And once legislation is actually adopted, it needs to be properly enforced. And well, to be able to advocate and shape legislation, you need a common understanding of the problem, and effective tools for campaigning and communications - see point 1 & 2.

5) For change to be sustainable and systemic, we need new ways of using the digital space. We need to innovate new business models, re-imagine public spaces, and generate brand-new ideas of how the technology should work and what value it should deliver. But that doesn’t happen all on its own. It requires real investment from the public and private sectors, initiatives from non-profits and education for innovation, and favourable legislation. Humane and human-centred, values-based technologies need to be scalable to be able to transform our reality for the better.

These steps are interconnected, and above all, they can only come about through cooperation and joined action across all parts of society. Disinformers are still much better equipped than those defending democracy by orders of magnitude. But when defenders come together, they have an exponentially greater transformational impact.

Alliance4Europe is a non-profit pioneer providing digital intelligence for democracy, creating communities for action, and civic tech for impact. The DISARM Foundation was created in order to enable a community led and stakeholder-driven governance of the open-source framework that DISARM rests upon. The Alfred Landecker Foundation supports Alliance4Europe so that it can further develop and promote the DISARM Framework.

The goal of the Disinformation Analysis and Risk Management (DISARM) Project with Alliance4Europe is to create a common language against disinformation, misinformation and influence operations.

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