Oumou Ly: Welcome to The Breakdown. My name is Oumou, I’m a staff fel­low on the Berkman Klein Centers’s Assembly Disinformation Program. Our top­ic for dis­cus­sion today is the upcom­ing November 2020 elec­tion. The 2016 elec­tion in so many ways laid bare the con­nec­tion between coun­ter­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion and pro­tect­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic process­es, and I think that it’s been dif­fi­cult since the 2016 elec­tion to quan­ti­fy the causal impact of dis­in­for­ma­tion on pub­lic con­fi­dence and demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions. We know that for­eign actors worked to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly influ­ence the elec­tion and we know that they’re work­ing to do the same this fall. My guest today is Brian Scully from the Department of Homeland Security, who will intro­duce himself. 

Brian Scully: Sure. Currently I run the DHS Countering Foreign Influence Task Force, which is in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. And I’ve been doing that for about two years now.

Ly: Awesome. So, the elec­tion, with all that is going on in the coun­try right now seems to be a lit­tle bit of a third thought, behind COVID and ongo­ing protest activ­i­ty relat­ed to police exe­cu­tions. But I want to start talk­ing about the elec­tion dur­ing our Breakdown series because we know it’s one of those areas that is just so ripe for dis­in­for­ma­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly the kind that we’re con­cerned about in the Assembly pro­gram, which is state-backed coor­di­nat­ed dis­in­for­ma­tion oper­a­tions. Can you talk a lit­tle bit more in depth about what you do at DHS on CISA.

Scully: Sure. So like I said I lead a small team. We’re focused on what we call coun­ter­ing for­eign influ­ence but real­ly what we’re try­ing to do is build nation­al resilience to for­eign influ­ence activ­i­ties. And so for us a lot of what we do is pub­lic edu­ca­tion and pub­lic aware­ness out­reach to dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, pro­vide resources that folks can use to bet­ter under­stand both the risk and then ways to mit­i­gate the risk. For us in par­tic­u­lar we’re try­ing to reduce the amount that Americans engage with dis­in­for­ma­tion. And so a lot of our prod­ucts and infor­ma­tion are focused on that. 

We’re also working…specific to the elec­tion we work a lot with state and local elec­tion offi­cials to help them with con­tent around the secu­ri­ty of the elec­tion, right. So help­ing cit­i­zens under­stand how to vote, where to vote…you know, how absen­tee bal­lot works, things like that. We do that in sup­port of state and local elec­tion officials. 

And so our two main areas are real­ly try­ing to help folks under­stand what’s going on around the 2020 elec­tion, and then build­ing broad­er kin­da long-term resilience to dis­in­for­ma­tion amongst the American people. 

Ly: Awesome. So, one of the first sub­stan­tive ques­tions I have for you in terms of the con­trast between what hap­pened in 2016 and what we expect to observe this fall is maybe just gen­er­al­ly what have we learned about state-backed infor­ma­tion oper­a­tions since 2016? What were the big take­aways you’d say, from your perspective?

Scully: Sure. So we’ve actu­al­ly learned a lot. And I think you know, a lot of it can be—a lot of what we draw from is one, the Mueller report and the indict­ments. There’s a lot of detail and infor­ma­tion about how the Russians act­ed and behaved and what they did in 2016. The Senate Intel Committee reports have been a fan­tas­tic resource. And since 2016 the research com­mu­ni­ty in par­tic­u­lar has been extra­or­di­nary in terms of real­ly div­ing deeply into what hap­pened in 2016 and what we’re see­ing since then. 

So I think a few of the impor­tant things we’ve learned since 2016 from those reports is one, we got a bet­ter sense of both the sophis­ti­ca­tion and the reach of Russian efforts in 2016, right. So, it was real­ly inter­est­ing for me to read about how the Russians had agents on the ground in the United States try­ing to bet­ter under­stand our polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment, for exam­ple. It was real­ly inter­est­ing to learn and under­stand how they tried to set up protests, right, where they would have both sides protest­ing against each oth­er, again to take things so it was­n’t just on social media but to bring things into the real world and to have peo­ple real­ly act­ing and behav­ing a cer­tain, and try­ing to get con­flict and con­flict and con­flict. So those tac­tics were super interesting. 

The oth­er thing that was real­ly inter­est­ing is real­ly see­ing how they were run­ning it like a mar­ket­ing or adver­tis­ing cam­paign, right. They were A/B test­ing mes­sag­ing. They were using data ana­lyt­ics to under­stand what nar­ra­tives and mes­sages were most effec­tive. And then they were tai­lor­ing what they were doing based on that. And so those are kin­da the two big things from a tac­ti­cal stand­point and then from a mar­ket­ing, adver­tis­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tions stand­point were super fascinating. 

For me per­son­al­ly, the area that I’ve learned the most is real­ly the psy­chol­o­gy behind dis­in­for­ma­tion, right. Why dis­in­for­ma­tion works. And start­ing to see a lot of the research com­ing out about the psy­chol­o­gy of dis­in­for­ma­tion; why dis­in­for­ma­tion works on humans; and Americans, why peo­ple kin­da jump into it. That’s really…you know, we talk a lot about tech solu­tions to dis­in­for­ma­tion. For me, tech solu­tions are help­ful, but the real prob­lem is a human prob­lem so how do we bet­ter under­stand the human aspects of dis­in­for­ma­tion, and then how can we work to mit­i­gate those sorts of things.

Ly: One of the oth­er ques­tions I had was relat­ed to what you men­tioned ear­li­er about protest activ­i­ty? How IRA agents staged coun­ter­protests on the same issue in the US. And we’re in such an inter­est­ing world in 2020 where they don’t have to do any of that work at all. Those protests are already going on. Are you see­ing, or is DHS see­ing, any attempts by state actors to use the ongo­ing protest activ­i­ty here for their own geopo­lit­i­cal aims?

Scully: So it’s been inter­est­ing about the cur­rent protests…the short answer is yes. But what’s been inter­est­ing about it is it’s been most­ly overt, open com­mu­ni­ca­tions, right. It’s not…I’m sure there’s some covert activ­i­ties going on where they have their false accounts and and things like that. But if you just look at state-run media, if you just look at diplo­mat­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tions, right, where the embassies are tweet­ing things out or post­ing mes­sages, it’s very overt com­mu­ni­ca­tions where they’re try­ing to take advan­tage of the dis­cord in the United States so that you know, again the goal of nation-state actors is to reduce the strength of the United States so that they have a bet­ter chance to achieve their strate­gic goals. And so any­thing they can do to kin­da under­mine the legit­i­ma­cy of the United States, under­mine the legit­i­ma­cy of democ­ra­cy, they’re going to take advan­tage of that and this is obvi­ous­ly a per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to do that. 

And you know, it’s a legitimate…right, it’s a real issue here in the United States that we have to deal with and those are the most effec­tive ways to cre­ate fis­sures and divi­sions. It’s just, you know, it’s just real­i­ty, unfortunately. 

Ly: Yeah. Have you seen any changes in how state actors are maybe seed­ing or plant­i­ng dis­in­for­ma­tion online?

Scully: Sure, absolute­ly we’ve seen some changes. You know, as the plat­forms and as gov­ern­ments have become more aggres­sive in terms of deal­ing with auto­mat­ed accounts, and bots, and inau­then­tic activ­i­ty, bad actors of course con­tin­ue to change their tac­tics and their tools. So we’ve seen a few things I think that are important. 

One, we’ve see new actors, both state and non-state actors, real­ly take on the Russian play­book from 2016. So the first thing that we’re see­ing is just a lot more play­ers in the field, right. It’s not just the Russians who’re push­ing it, it’s a range of state actors. And then more impor­tant­ly I think, and more chal­leng­ing cer­tain­ly from a gov­ern­ment stand­point is we have a lot of domes­tic actors that are tak­ing the play­book from 2016 and lever­ag­ing it for their own pur­pos­es now. So that’s I think first and most important. 

From a more tac­ti­cal lev­el we’ve also seen a few dif­fer­ent changes. So, state actors now are much more focused on amplifying—as we were just talk­ing about—amplifying exist­ing nar­ra­tives that are—you know, exist in the United States, right. So in 2016 there was more where the state actors were cre­at­ing nar­ra­tives and then try­ing to ampli­fy the nar­ra­tives that they’d cre­at­ed. Now what we’re see­ing more of is where they’re just jump­ing on and get­ting behind nar­ra­tives that are being pushed by American cit­i­zens, right. So they don’t have to cre­ate the con­tent them­selves, they just jump onto exist­ing nar­ra­tives and dis­in­for­ma­tion that’s being pushed. 

So that’s one. Two, we’ve seen more lever­ag­ing of prox­ies, right. And so back a month or two ago, there’s a great sto­ry that CNN did using some real­ly excel­lent research from a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent researchers where they actu­al­ly sent a reporter to Ghana, where Russians were lever­ag­ing a Ghana social media mar­ket­ing com­pa­ny to do dis­in­for­ma­tion in the United States. And so we’re see­ing a lot more of that where they’re try­ing to iden­ti­fy local prox­ies because it makes it much more dif­fi­cult for the plat­forms in par­tic­u­lar to iden­ti­fy inau­then­tic activ­i­ty, right. And so we’re see­ing more of that. So that’s a super fa—if you get the chance and…I don’t think as a gov­ern­ment offi­cial I’m allowed to pro­mote a par­tic­u­lar news agency, but if you get a chance, that sto­ry and that research is real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing to see how it’s actu­al­ly being done on the ground and how it actu­al­ly works.

Another thing we’re see­ing a lot of is what we call dis­in­for­ma­tion as a ser­vice. This is where com­pa­nies are essen­tial­ly offer­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion ser­vices, right. You can go hire some­body to run dis­in­for­ma­tion on your behalf. And so again it just opens up the play­ing field for the num­ber of actors who can kin­da get involved and be involved in dis­in­for­ma­tion activities. 

And then of course you’re just see­ing kind of ramp­ing up of old becomes new, so forg­eries, things like that. We’ve seen some where rather than try­ing to sub­vert reporters they’re cre­at­ing fake reporters and fake news sites to push arti­cles and things like that. And then you see a lot of lever­ag­ing of overt media activ­i­ties, right, and con­nect­ing state-run media with nar­ra­tives and using the state-run media to ampli­fy and things like that as well.

So there’s a lot going on. I think we’ll see a lot of what we’ve seen in the past, but then you’ll see some of these new items and some tweaks and things like that to try to make it more effective.

Ly: Yeah. I know one chal­lenge that came out of the Mueller inves­ti­ga­tion was that there’s a pret­ty clear avenue for per­se­cut­ing state actors or non-US per­sons who par­tic­i­pate in these oper­a­tions, but not so much for US per­sons, American cit­i­zens. Can you talk a lit­tle bit about how the gov­ern­ment is respond­ing to that dif­fi­cul­ty since 2016?

Scully: Yeah. So…I mean I think that’s an impor­tant ques­tion, right. Foreign actors can break the law, and they can be inves­ti­gat­ed and hope­ful­ly pros­e­cut­ed. Obviously pros­e­cu­tion can be dif­fi­cult. For US cit­i­zens, there’s First Amendment pro­tec­tions for speech in kin­da how we deal with that. So it’s a dif­fi­cult top­ic. I mean there’s a lot of incen­tives for folks to push and con­duct dis­in­for­ma­tion oper­a­tions for their per­son­al gain or polit­i­cal gain with­in the United States. And that cre­ates a chal­lenge, right. We can’t inves­ti­gate First Amendment-protected speech, you know. The FBI and DOJ can’t do any­thing about that. And DHS is cer­tain­ly not get­ting involved in try­ing to do any­thing around domes­tic speech. 

So that is the val­ue… You know, that is essen­tial­ly bad actors tak­ing advan­tage of our free­doms, right. American cit­i­zens, we can post up our opin­ions how­ev­er we want, when­ev­er we want, and for­eign actors can come in and find the worst of those opin­ions or the most divi­sive of those opin­ions and ampli­fy them. And so it is def­i­nite­ly a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge when domes­tic actors are par­tic­i­pat­ing and active in infor­ma­tion. And I don’t know that there’s a good answer to that prob­lem. Certainly not yet 

Ly: Yeah. What do you see as the gov­ern­men­t’s over­all role in com­bat­ing disinformation?

Scully: That is the $64,000 ques­tion, right? Yeah that’s a good ques­tion. And I think— You know the first thing, and this is some­thing I grap­ple with reg­u­lar­ly. It was some­thing when I was up in the fel­low­ship, that I talked to my fellow…my fel­low fel­lows about, quite a bit. So I think it’s a real­ly dif­fi­cult ques­tion. And it’s not just a dif­fi­cult ques­tion about what’s the gov­ern­men­t’s role, I think we have to be talk­ing about what the plat­forms’ role is, what tech com­pa­nies’ role is, what civ­il soci­ety’s role is, and what the indi­vid­u­al’s role is in deal­ing with and com­bat­ing disinformation. 

So from the gov­ern­ment side, I think what we’re doing now is essen­tial­ly lever­ag­ing the author­i­ties and what we can legal­ly do, right. So, we have the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty help­ing to under­stand the threat, iden­ti­fy­ing bad actors, doing the things that the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty does. And does very well, right. And then we have our law enforce­ment agen­cies, the FBI, the DOJ, right. They’re inves­ti­gat­ing when the law is vio­lat­ed, when the law is bro­ken, they’re inves­ti­gat­ing, indict­ing, pros­e­cut­ing the bad actors. And that’s great, and that’s a piece of it. 

And then we have to build—what DHS is doing, we’re try­ing to build pub­lic resilience, right. We’re try­ing to help the American peo­ple under­stand the role that they play and the steps that they can take. 

And then of course at a broad­er lev­el, par­tic­u­lar­ly for state actors, we need to estab­lish deter­rence mea­sures. And I believe the state depart­ment and the National Security Council, inter­a­gency more broad­ly is kind of work­ing on how can we deter state actors from try­ing to inter­fere in what we’re doing. 

And so I think those are the things that gov­ern­ment can do now. And that’s what we’re try­ing to do now, with­in the author­i­ties we have. The ques­tion is you know, we have peo­ple call­ing for more mon­i­tor­ing of speech, right, on plat­forms. We have to tell the plat­forms that this is a line, they need to take it down. Or we’re ask­ing the plat­forms to do that. And so you know, that gets into pro­tect­ed speech and First Amendment rights, and I think those are super dif­fi­cult, chal­leng­ing ques­tions we have to deal with. 

And there’s things as gov­ern­ment we deal with every day, not only the free speech issues and First Amendment pro­tec­tions, but pri­va­cy issues and those sorts of things. As you know, attribut­ing an actor on social media is dif­fi­cult, right. I mean, anonymi­ty is kin­da the thing on social media for a lot of these plat­forms. And so it’s very dif­fi­cult to iden­ti­fy and attribute who’s say­ing some­thing. And so if you don’t know who’s say­ing some­thing it could be an American cit­i­zen, how do you deal with that? If you know it’s a for­eign actor, like it’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent approach to it, right. From a gov­ern­ment stand­point it opens up some dif­fer­ent avenues for us. But if you don’t know or if it’s poten­tial­ly an American cit­i­zen how do you deal with that differently. 

So, my view is I think we need a broad­er nation­al dis­cus­sion on roles and respon­si­bil­i­ties. You know, what’s the gov­ern­men­t’s role, what’s the plat­forms’ role, what’s the tech com­pa­nies’ role, what are the indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens’ role, how can we lever­age civ­il soci­ety in this space? I don’t know that we’ve got­ten there yet. But I think that con­ver­sa­tion needs to occur. And so the gov­ern­ment right now, I think we’re lever­ag­ing our author­i­ties. I think cer­tain­ly from a DHS stand­point we try to push as much as we can but we’re also super cau­tious. So I don’t know how you can be aggres­sive­ly cau­tious but I think that’s gen­er­al­ly our approach. Because we’re very very con­cerned about pri­va­cy and First Amendment pro­tec­tions and things like that. And I know that our inter­a­gency part­ners feel the same way as well.

Further Reference

Medium post for this episode, with intro­duc­tion and edit­ed text