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

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