How to track digital mercenaries behind disinformation
It is just as important to identify the actors who perpetuate disinformation as it is the false facts themselves
BY AMARAH ENNIS
It is just as important to identify the actors who perpetuate disinformation as it is the false facts themselves: if a journalist is able to target the source of false information, they can expose and neutralize it.
During an ICFJ Disarming Disinformation masterclass, held in partnership with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, award-winning data journalist and director of Columbia University’s Master of Science Data Journalism Program, Giannina Segnini, discussed these “digital mercenaries” and how to stop them.
Digital mercenaries tend to present themselves erratically online, said Segnini. “I call them digital mercenaries because one day they sell trousers; the next day they support a left wing candidate; the next day, a right wing candidate,” she said. “Some are ideologically consistent, but in general it is a [nonaligned] industry made of data scientists and publicists.”
Segnini has also dubbed digital mercenaries “children of Cambridge Analytica,” referring to the consulting firm that harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without their consent for political advertising. They aren’t just individuals, she cautioned: “These could be intelligence groups, state intelligence operators, transnational and very powerful industries, [as well as] individual donors and religious groups,” said Segnini. “They use data to target people who may be susceptible to disinformation.”
Both the 2016 Trump campaign and the U.K.’s Vote Leave campaign on Brexit were headed by Cambridge Analytica. Today, its “children” are trying to imitate the success of those campaigns in countries across Africa and Latin America.
Upside down campaigns
Digital mercenaries often lead covert efforts beneath the surface of political campaigns. “These are campaigns that operate in a number of countries,” said Segnini. “Normally, we never learn who is behind them because they’re parallel worlds.”
On the visible side, candidates use campaign funds to pay their staff, conduct polls, and fund other above board actions. Transnational organizations hoping to further their own agendas operate anonymously underneath this credible facade. They spend money on data analysis and prediction, content production across a host of platforms, and on targeting specific voter groups online.
The actions of the hidden campaign aid those of the visible campaign and vice versa. “There’s this explosion of well-designed campaigns using artificial intelligence to orient certain messages to a certain location,” said Segnini.
Segnini outlined five interchangeable steps to help journalists find information about digital mercenaries hiding on social media platforms and elsewhere online:
Check reports by official social media sources. Segnini highlighted Google’s Threat Analysis Group and Meta’s Adversarial Threat Report.
Search public documents. For research in the U.S., Segnini recommended using the FARA Index, a U.S. government database for tracking agents of foreign parties.
Research individuals on social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.).
Research companies by visiting their websites. If you’re unable to access a website or page, or want to see what information used to be on the site, try using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
Follow the money. This doesn’t always mean bank account transactions, Segnini noted. “In [Latin America], there are massive campaigns of disinformation directed by the governments, and it’s more difficult because it’s the government itself that does the infrastructure, but contracts have to be paid,” she said. “You have to follow assets in a coherent way to get a better idea of the ecosystem. What budgetary allocation was used? By who? What assets are being liquidated there?”
Once a journalist uncovers the names of companies and people of interest, they can begin to look for more specific details. Be practical when searching for more information on these businesses and think logically about next steps, Segnini urged.
“If we have the names, we [can] look at local registrations, business registrations… think in real life terms of all of the operations that have to be done,” she said. “If there’s a remodeling of a building, for example — if you have an address, you can find it in the Ministry of Public Buildings or the Buildings Registry, or whatever the government entity is. There can be inspections for remodeling; somebody signed that. You can be creative in following the names in all of the publicly available databases.”
Information about where corporations or individual actors are operating may also exist in Google Maps and Tweetdeck. “You can find where these companies are registered online corporations,” said Segnini.
Want to get started tracking digital mercenaries? Here are a few more resources to check out.
NINA, a new Spanish-language database developed by the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism, that compiles connections between companies and individual contractors in Latin America. Registration for the site is free.
Hoaxy is a tool by Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media (OSoMe) that can be used to track how information spreads on Twitter.
Botometer is another tool by OSoMe that can estimate how likely it is that a certain Twitter account is a bot.
The RAND Corporation has a comprehensive database of tools for fighting disinformation as part of their Countering Truth Decay Initiative.
Courtesy: IJNET (Posted on Dec 30, 2022 in COMBATING MIS- AND DISINFORMATION)