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By Rand Waltzman
October 12, 2015
IDEAS
Rand Waltzman is a former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager.

Cyber or information-environment security is often in the news, yet most of our focus has been on theft of intellectual property, denial of service attacks, and assaults on personal privacy. Far less attention has been paid to the ways social media have facilitated a level of propaganda and falsehoods, which is far more pernicious than anything previously experienced. The continuous assault on objective, truthful information threatens to undermine democratic institutions, including a free press.

As a former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager, I recently concluded a $50 million program, Social Media in Strategic Communication, that led to the release of more than 200 publications and to the creation of a science of social media.

What we learned is that “bullsh..t” is a weapon that is being used worldwide to fundamentally attack the medium of the press, and that the issue of freedom of the press is, in fact, a diversion. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, is a master of this type of cognitive hack. The director of the Russian International News Agency, Dmitry Kiselev, provided deep insight into this strategy by saying: “Objectivity is a myth which is proposed and imposed on us.” The tagline of this approach is “hack the medium, hack the message.”

Propaganda, of course, has played an important role in government and international relations for centuries. More often than not, the word “propaganda” is used in a negative or pejorative context. But this was not always the case. In 1622, Pope Gregory XV created the Congretatio de Propaganda Fide (Office for the Propagation of the Faith) with the purpose to supervise the church’s missionary efforts in the New World and elsewhere. This was partly a reaction to the spread of Protestantism and intended to help people follow the “true” path.

Edward Bernays, considered by many to be the father of the modern field of public relations, had a perhaps somewhat more flexible interpretation. He said: “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.” He also took note of its power, making clear that the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. is unable to effectively take advantage of social media and the Internet due to poorly conceived U.S. policies and antiquated laws. For example, US Law 50 U.S. Code § 3093(f) effectively prohibits our intelligence community from action “intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.” With social media and the Internet, there is no way to guarantee that no U.S. person will be inadvertently exposed to information operations that are not intended for them, and this rule is broadly applied as a basis for banning any type of useful action. While this made sense in the days when influence operations were confined to print, radio, and TV, it does not make any sense in today’s global instantaneous information world.

At the Department of Defense, lack of understanding and general fear leads legal authorities to get caught up in the literal application of regulations intended for intelligence operations whose objectives are strikingly different. At the State Department, analysts are, for the most part, prevented from effectively or meaningfully using public social media due in large part to interpretations of the 1974 Privacy Act and other statutes by State Department lawyers. This means that basically anything useful their analysts might do, like recording the results of identifying and profiling dangerous groups and individuals based on publicly available information, would immediately fall under the category of intelligence collection and all the bureaucracy and prohibition that implies.

Attempts to apply these and numerous other out-of-date laws and regulations by lawyers throughout the government have led to overly cautious and non-uniform policies and prohibitions resulting in massive confusion and paralysis. The bottom line is that the U.S. government has no ability to defend us against being manipulated by actors—state as well as non-state—that recognize no boundaries on a scale that was previously unimaginable.

Consider the following cognitive hack. In March of 2006, a battalion of U.S. Special Forces Soldiers engaged a Jaish al-Mahdi death squad (better known as Mahdi Army). The U.S. soldiers killed 16 or 17, captured 17, destroyed a weapons cache and rescued a badly beaten hostage. This sounds like a successful operation, except for the fact that in the time it took for the soldiers to get back to their base—less than one hour—the death squad soldiers had returned to the scene, cleaned up the mess, and rearranged the bodies of the their fallen comrades to make it look like they were unarmed in the middle of prayer when they were murdered by American soldiers. They put out pictures and press releases in Arabic and English showing the alleged atrocity.

The U.S. unit filmed its entire action and could prove this is not what happened. And yet it took almost three days before the U.S. military attempted to tell its side of the story in the media. By then it was too late—the desired damage had been done. What is worse, the Army was forced to launch an investigation that lasted 30 days during which time the battalion was out of commission.

This is an excellent example of how it is possible to use social media and the Internet to defeat an adversary that could not be defeated by physical force. This incident was one of the first clear demonstrations of how our adversaries can now monitor how American audiences are reacting to their messaging, in real time, from thousands of miles away. Social media and the Internet provides our adversaries with unlimited global access to their intended audience as the U.S. government is paralyzed by legal and policy issues.

The use of social media and the Internet is rapidly becoming a powerful weapon for information warfare and changing the nature of conflict worldwide. Because of misaligned U.S. policies and laws, we continue to largely rely on only conventional warfare techniques, which puts us at a severe disadvantage. We are losing our military and political advantage and ability to compete.

Our job in the Social Media in Strategic Communication program was to establish a fundamental science of social media. We demonstrated that it is possible to counter cognitive hacking and preserve the medium of the free press. For example, researchers developed technologies to detect activities of social bots, including automated Twitter accounts designed to interact with and persuade a target audience. We also created a new and powerful definition of a meme (topic, idea or concept on social media) and a technique for very early detection of potentially important memes.

Yet our one-time $50 million investment must be measured against the more than $300 million annual budget of the Russia Today news agency to say nothing of that of the Chinese, ISIS and a steadily growing host of others. Worst of all, our adversaries have unrestricted use of our own technology against us while we are not allowed to use it to defend ourselves.

The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not represent views of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) or the Software Engineering Institute of Carnegie Mellon University.

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