In February 2019, Lea Gabrielle has been appointed to lead the Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, a hub for countering propaganda throughout the world
Since disinformation campaigns surfaced during the 2016 U.S. elections, the Center has been given responsibilities to address these efforts as well. Per the organization’s website, the Center is focused on achieving four competency areas: Science & Technology; Interagency Engagement; Partner Engagement; and Content Production. The multi-pronged approach is designed to leverage internal/external stakeholders, as well as to maximize the benefits of technology, to simultaneously undermine terrorist recruitment operations as well as adversarial state information-based activities.
Countering hostile information has been a challenge for the United States and has not been noticeably successful. Cyber space has proven a resilient domain for hostile actors that continue to leverage social media channels to support their operations. Social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook have improved identifying and removing terrorist-related content. For example, since 2015, Twitter has suspended more than 935,000 accounts suspected of having terrorist or terrorist-sympathizer ties. Similarly, Facebook
has asserted that it removes one billion accounts every day. But despite impressive numbers, these groups continue to proliferate in the very spaces they are getting ousted from, calling into question how effective these initiatives are. Obviously, these entities work successfully in the system in which they operate.
Disinformation campaigns gained notoriety in 2016, and propaganda, fake news, and misinformation have been linked to state actors. Influence campaigns are a tactic that is becoming more apparent, even though there is limited information to suggest if such tactics are successful in achieving their objectives. The global reach of social media, and the inexpensive costs associated with their use, make leveraging these channels a worthwhile endeavor. Even if suspected “fake” accounts are identified, like terrorists/terrorist sympathizers, these state and state-affiliated actors quickly establish new footholds in these channels even if removed.
As social media outlets play their versions of whack-a-mole, the Global Engagement Center has the difficult task of taking on these threats with creative content and messaging. The U.S. has engaged in similar operations in the past with limited success in trying to win the war of ideas. Extremist ideologies present a unique challenge as these religious beliefs are often strongly rooted in sometimes conflicting doctrines under the same religious umbrella. Therefore, there is no one-size fits all strategy that can be implemented. Rather, tailored approaches are required, as messaging is most effective when it comes from shared experience.
Confronting state-drive information campaigns involves a whole new set of challenges. States generally have substantial material and financial resources that can be dedicated to creation, promotion, and dissemination of content from multiple, different sources. Crafting narratives to offset these requires understanding the adversary behind the source, as well as creating content that mitigates the message. Defending against the volume of such tactics can be the digital equivalent of the Dutch boy trying to plug leaks in the dam.
Another challenge concerns funding issues. According to one news source, in February 2018, the Center had been funded for USD 35 million, in which USD 20 million was destined toward countering Islamic State propaganda. During that same period the Department of Defense agreed to contribute USD 40 million to the Center to include operations against Russian disinformation. However, as of March 2018, it was discovered that the Department of State had not allocated any of the USD 120 million it had received since 2016 to support the Center’s mission.
It now appears that might have changed, as news has been released that the Center had initiated in secretive counter-disinformation missions against an adversary in December 2018. Details have not been released as to the targets or whether this was an ongoing or one-time engagement. The appointment of Ms. Gabrielle is also a sign that more activities may soon be undertaken by the Center.
Statistically speaking, the work of social media outlets to proactively identify and neutralize “fake” or content questionable accounts appears to be a robust undertaking, coupled with Center ramping up operations is promising. It certainly gives off the impression of something being done, and large numbers are always impressive. However, the real hurdle in front of the Center is being able to capture what “success” looks like in a battle of words in cyberspace. As Twitter’s and Facebook’s efforts have shown, the bad guys always come back, and small battles that are won don’t overshadow the bigger information war. It is necessary to define smaller missions of the Center in the context of the information space, an area that Western nations and the United States in particular have championed as necessary to remain uncensored for democratic principles to flourish. What the criteria for the success of the Center is remains to be articulated.
The reboot of the Center with a new leader is a chance to pump new energy into counter-information activities that are likely to ebb and flow determinant on the geopolitical climate. Strategy plays one important part in information confrontation but understanding how success can be measured must move beyond gaudy statistics. Until this is understood and communicated, the online game of cat and mouse will continue without much change.
About the Author
Emilio Iasiello has more than 12 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals and blogs. Follow Emilio on Twitter