On this timely episode of the Zero Hour Podcast, we have two-time guest Alicia Wanless, a.k.a La Generalista, who we last chatted with back in 2019. During her previous appearance, we talked about how technology’s role in digital propaganda, and the spread of misinformation within democratic information ecosystems. In this episode, we talk about Alicia’s new role as Co-Director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Communicating Truth in Public Health Information Against Influence Operations
"The only point of intervention we have to deal with influence operations are the platforms. It's the companies. To that, I'd also ask, where are the commitments from politicians and their supporters to not engage in unacceptable influence operations?"
Alicia is a PhD Researcher at King's College. She has over a decade of experience researching and analyzing the information environment, focusing on propaganda and information warfare. Alicia believes that with the right tools policymakers can make the truth heard above the noise of influence operations, especially around public health information.
Understanding The Complexity of Influence Operations
Carnegie defines influence operations as "a complex threat that involves organized attempts to achieve a specific effect among a target audience." There is a varied community combating these operations, from academics, to social platforms, to think tanks, to governments.
The cross-sector, multidisciplinary community at Carnegie is aimed at researching and countering influence operations. "Essentially we have three core pillars to our work there," Alicia explains.
"We [at Carnegie] foster a multidisciplinary community working to understand and counter influence operations."
"First we aim to provide a baseline about what is currently known about influence operations and how to counter them. Second, we foster a multidisciplinary community working to understand and counter influence operations."
"Third, this work feeds into our wider research agenda aimed at developing collaborative pilot projects for measuring the spread of influence operations across online platforms, but also the effects of influence operations and the effectiveness of countermeasures." These will be a big focus of Carnegie's work in 2021.
Communicating Truth in Public Health Information
When asked about public health experts effectively communicating their views in the mass media landscape, Alicia discussed the many challenges they face against these influence operations.
"They're communicating in a really crowded information environment where it can be difficult to be heard, even if you have a good pulpit. The first problem is that certain situations create information voids, whereby little is known about what is happening. The second problem is that at least in the context of COVID-19, they're also trying to communicate in a period of great uncertainty and this gives them added challenges to what they're trying to do."
"There's not a lot of accurate information out there to explain the issue. So the challenge here is that humans by nature don't really handle ambiguity very well."
As for public health information, she expressed that people become compelled to seek out any answers to reduce the feeling of uncertainty. "It's the same part of the brain that processes fear that is activated in uncertain situations. There's not a lot of accurate information out there to explain the issue. So the challenge here is that humans by nature don't really handle ambiguity very well."
Amplifying Public Health Experts' Voices
Doctors and scientists are committed to communicating truthful or accurate information. But in a pandemic, Alicia explains, time becomes an issue, as it could take months to formulate a proper response especially when a new disease is emerging.
"When it comes to public health officials, there's a big gap because people don't know who they are… They have to be amplified by others, including media influencers and politicians."
Politics brings in another set of issues, where lacking political support poses challenges for public health experts. "When it comes to public health officials, there's a big gap because people don't know who they are," Alicia said. "[They] don't have the established relationship. And here we have a moment of crisis and we're surfacing an expert and hoping that everyone's going to listen to them because they're an expert."
As lone voices, public health experts really don't stand a chance of cutting through the noise. "I don't think they have much choice," Alicia explains. "They have to be amplified by others, including media influencers and politicians." One feasible tactic, however, is aligning policy messages and countering misinformation by communicating through trusted channels and people.
In the Carnegie paper she co-wrote with Victoria Smith, these experts examine the way public health experts communicate truth in a muddled information environment.
Here’s an interesting excerpt from the paper:
"What is true today may not be true tomorrow. This cloud of uncertainty is compounded by the conflicting agendas of the many actors who are all trying to get their own messages heard. Whether they are driven by a desire to promote public health, criticize a ruling government, promote xenophobia, or capitalize on the crisis for personal financial gain, those who wish to be heard can find or manipulate information to support their favored narratives."
A Disparate Patchwork of Influence Operations Policies
To date, Alicia and her team have reviewed more than 125 platform policies published by 13 internet platforms. However, these tend to be disparate policies, like "a patchwork of policies," as she calls them.
"The only point of intervention we have to deal with influence operations are the platforms. It's the companies. To that, I'd also ask like, where are the commitments from politicians and their supporters to not engage in unacceptable influence operations?" exclaims Alicia. "Where are the laws governing the tools that drive influence operations or around behavioral advertising or astroturfing or spreading disinformation?"
The pressure to do something about this issue is extremely high. It's mostly driven by media coverage surrounding the topic. Alicia believes how we govern information in a digital age is incredibly important. Private and public sector entities should establish guiding principles or practices.
You can listen to the podcast episode here, and is also available on Stitcher, Apple, and Spotify. The Zero Hour Podcast is the intersection of information security and business innovation. Learn from industry experts in cybersecurity, marketing, and business management. We talk about the challenges and opportunities that come with new technology. Join the conversation now.