Online Disinformation as an Intelligence Challenge

April 19, 2021

Last week, the leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) re-started a previously-annual set of public Congressional hearings focused on the overall worldwide threat picture. In conjunction with that testimony, the IC released its Annual Threat Assessment document, providing top-line analysis on issues ranging from Russia and China, to climate change and migration, to pandemics and organized crime.

In this report, the IC was clear-eyed about the threat that foreign-based disinformation and election influence operations (in this case, specifically from Russia) pose:

“Russia presents one of the most serious intelligence threats to the United States, using its intelligence services and influence tools to try to divide Western alliances, preserve its influence in the post-Soviet area, and increase its sway around the world, while undermining US global standing, sowing discord inside the United States, and influencing US voters and decisionmaking. Russia will continue to advance its technical collection and surveillance capabilities and probably will share its technology and expertise with other countries, including US adversaries. Moscow almost certainly views US elections as an opportunity to try to undermine US global standing, sow discord inside the United States, influence US decisionmaking, and sway US voters. Moscow conducted influence operations against US elections in 2016, 2018, and 2020.”

I wrote last week about how a former Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, was working to combat the impact of this kind of disinformation with a program that teaches Florida students how to be better digital consumers. It is clear that current and former intelligence officials recognize the severity of the threat and are taking actions accordingly.

The Intelligence Community also publishes an interesting forward-looking document called Global Trends, which assesses key trends and uncertainties that will shape our country’s strategic environment over the next two decades. It has been published every four years since 1997, early in each administration to give policymakers an analytic framework as they develop their national security strategies. Intelligence analysts are often criticized for being too wedded to the crises of the moment and not looking further enough afield; this product is one effort to correct that imbalance.

The latest iteration of Global Trends was published several weeks ago and discussed ideological fragmentation on social media and the volatility in political systems that can occur as a result. They wrote:

“The combination of newly prominent and diverse identity allegiances and a more siloed information environment is exposing and aggravating fault lines within states, undermining civic nationalism, and increasing volatility.”

These fault lines are exactly what nefarious foreign actors target with their information operations, by trying to use our domestic political differences and debates against us.

In these documents and others, our intelligence leaders (including the FBI Director, who has both a domestic and foreign role) have been clear that disinformation is a clear and present danger. So how do they plan to counter it?

The intelligence tools used to combat foreign-based information are varied and include cyber capabilities to locate foreign troll farms, to trace and attribute attacks like Solar Winds, and to link foreign intelligence services to specific disinformation efforts. There are also legal tools, such as the indictments the Mueller Investigation handed down against 25 Russians, although the likelihood of any of these men actually facing trial is essentially zero. And there are policy options, such as the designations and sanctions against Russian entities that the Biden administration announced last week.

But the biggest nut to crack, however, is how to deprive Russia or other nefarious actors of willing audiences here in the United States. As the IC analysts wrote in this year’s Global Trends report:

“Efforts to arbitrate controversial content, such as flagging or removing demonstrably false claims, are unlikely to be effective in changing beliefs and values aligned with one’s closely held identities, however. Identity-based beliefs tend to eclipse truth-seeking because of the overriding need to belong, obtain status, understand the social world, maintain dignity, and feel morally justified.”

So even if the false information is removed, these intelligence analysts assessed that it is often unlikely to make a difference in changing people’s minds. How can we get to a place in our country where identity-based beliefs do not eclipse truth-seeking? That’s a puzzle that none of the experts have figured out how to solve, but it’s one we all have to try to fix together.

Marie Harf
International Elections Analyst, USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative

Marie Harf is a strategist who has focused her career on promoting American foreign policy to domestic audiences. She has held senior positions at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, worked on political campaigns for President Barack Obama and Congressman Seth Moulton, and served as a cable news commentator. Marie has also been an Instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.