Disinformation as a Security Risk with Dr. Nad’a Kovalcikova

On Wednesday, 27 May 2020, the HSSC hosted an online session on Disinformation as a Security Risk with Dr. Nad’a Kovalcikova. Dr. Kovalcikova is a program manager at the Alliance for Securing Democracy in GMF (The German Marshall Fund of the United States) in Brussels. She is an expert in analyzing information operations and efforts to counter disinformation and threats to democracy.

As a security threat, disinformation is used to undermine democracies by spreading divisive narratives. There are five tools of interference:
  1. Information Operations: coordinated use of social or traditional media to achieve a strategic objective, including the insertion or amplification of false, misleading, or divisive narratives to manipulate public debate
  2.  Cyber ​​Attacks: the probing and penetration of computer networks to cripple critical infrastructure
  3. Political and Social Subversion: the backing of politicians and groups, often at the extremes of the political spectrum inside another country through financial, covert, or subversive means
  4. Strategic Economic Coercion:   the exploitation of national resources and commercial activity as leverage over another country’s government to weaken it and force a change in policy
  5.  Malign Finance: the facilitation of financial activity involving illicit proceeds or in furtherance of other illicit ends
Our session with Dr. Kovalcikova focused on information operations and how they are a threat
to security. She used the COVID-19 pandemic as a clear and ongoing example of how information can be used to trigger citizens to distrust their government and to cause physical harm to essential infrastructures. Concerning the current pandemic, people are oversaturated with information – from the news, from social media, from friends and family members. When governments fail at proactive communication to their citizens, they make the general population easy targets for disinformation campaigns.
 
Dr. Kovalcikova looked at the lack of affirmative information surrounding the source, the spread, and the treatment of COVID-19 in more detail. The lack of transparency has allowed numerous conspiracy theories to surface and spread, one of them being that 5G is the source of COVID-19 and is also responsible for the rapid spread of the virus. This conspiracy was a twist of a previous conspiracy claiming that 5G is bad for the health. Then, in March, a video went viral that showed a supposed doctor claiming 5G poisoned cells, forcing them to excrete waste and that waste became known as COVID-19. While most people knew (and know) the impossibility of this, enough people believed this conspiracy theory to burn down cell phone towers, not only 5G, but also 4G, and 3G. This caused damage to critical infrastructure and further broke communication lines. Disinformation is more than just fake news. It can have dangerous effects, especially during this current pandemic.
 
Dr. Kovalcikova closed her presentation by sharing two open-source tools that we can all use to track information operations of authoritarian actors trying to undermine democratic institutions and processes. These tools are provided by the Alliance for Securing Democracy housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States:
  1. Authoritarian Interference Tracker: This tool exposes foreign interference activities in over 40
    transatlantic countries. 
  2.  Hamilton 2.0 dashboard: This tool is useful for monitoring narratives and topics promoted by
    Russia, China and Iran’s government official accounts or state-backed media outlets across
    different social media platforms.
Following her presentation, Dr. Kovalcikova opened the floor for discussion between her and

the students participating in the session.

An important question from a student was on what us “normal” people can do to counter this disinformation narrative. Dr. Kovalcikova responded that it’s challenging for the ordinary person to counter   disinformation on a grand scale. The best thing we can do is build our own resiliency towards
manipulated information, whether through education, media literacy programs or digital tools, including those built into social media platforms. We need to verify original sources of information and share trusted info with our families and friends. [A tool that can be used to help filter disinformation is  Newsguard, which rates media outlets and warns users of trending.
 
We should have a “critical open
mind, “meaning that there is no need to doubt everything, but “if something sounds off, it usually 
has something off.”
If you are interested in articles written by Dr. Nad’a Kovalcikova, please visit

Right-Wing Extremism and Social Media with Dr. Daniel Koehler

On 6 May 2020, the Hertie School Security Club held an online session on right-wing extremism and social media with Dr. Daniel Koehler, an expert in terrorism, radicalization, and de-radicalization. Dr. Koehler began the meeting with a presentation and then opened up the “floor” for questions from the audience.

Dr. Koehler pointed to the essential factors that social media plays in the radicalization process. It allows for a sense of anonymity and gives individuals the feeling that they are part of a more significant global movement. Social media has also made it easy for people to connect with the insiders of extremist groups. They gain access by sharing brutal videos, memes, and posts, rather than having to prove themselves through in-person acts of violence.

That being said, radicalization cannot be done through online means alone. The combination of online and offline actions allows for the rapid spread of extremism. In his presentation, Dr. Koehler highlighted the Christchurch attack in New Zealand. The attacker used both online and offline actions to spread his ideology. Copycats were then seen in the U.S., Norway, and Germany using the same ideals.

Dr. Koehler indicated that the best way to fight online extremists is to combat them before they hit a critical level, or if possible, to get them to turn against each other. This would not be an easy feat, requiring legal backing to infiltrate these groups and creating ideological struggles between them. Dr. Koehler described this as cyberwarfare and stated that government backing is essential for a successful countermovement.

During the Q&A, Dr. Koehler revealed the mainstream media’s role in expanding extremism, as well as what actions the average person could take to combat radicalization. In an ideal world, journalists would be focused on truthful and high-quality reporting. Their goal would be to inform the public of ongoing attacks and specific threats. Instead, journalism tends to focus on getting views and likes by publishing the most shocking news. Most of the time, they end up sharing radical propaganda in ways that make it easier for viewers to connect with extremist groups. Extremist groups have become experts in manipulating media sources to share their propaganda.

As for personally combatting radical groups, Dr. Koehler’s advice was clear: within our own circles, simply block those who share intolerant content and report those who publish illegal posts. Whenever possible, educate peers and challenge them to have a clear understanding of their values. We cannot delete extremism from the internet, but we can try to push it to the corner and limit its reach within our own circles.