During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Macedonian teens looking to get paid for ad-clicks, Russian cyber sophisticates apparently looking to tilt the outcome, and some homegrown mood manipulators broadcast outrageous and false stories packaged to look like real news. Their counterfeit posts were nearly indistinguishable from authentic coin and remain so, even in the face of skeptical but impatient fact-checking.
Although much of the establishment has been left wringing its hands about what to do—how to ferret out fake news and those who produce it—there are already tools and systems to help digital investigations and gumshoe reporters connect the dots and discover scams. Metadata—the data about data—can provide a digital signature to identify actors on the Internet. And the Web itself allows us to examine timelines, serialize events, and identify primary sources. Some signatures are harder to find than others, but they are all there; you just need to know where to look and what to analyze.
Indeed, the intelligence community already thwarts terrorist attacks through methods like these, known in the vernacular as “tools, processes, and procedures,” and the Department of Homeland Security maintains a knowledge center of vulnerabilities. Such work will be aided by the newly created Global Engagement Center, (section 1287 of the National Defense Authorization Act signed by U.S. President Barack Obama just before Christmas), which expands the government’s repertoire and mandate to “identify current and emerging trends in foreign propaganda and disinformation in order to coordinate and shape the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures to expose and refute foreign misinformation and disinformation and proactively promote fact-based narratives and policies to audiences outside the United States.”
The language comes from a cybersecurity bill that U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced last spring. According to co-sponsor Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the United States now has dedicated “resources to confront our adversaries’ widespread efforts to spread false narratives that undermine democratic institutions and compromise America’s foreign policy goals” in the digital age.