A Call to Action—Enhancing Our Capabilities to Counter Cyber Disinformation

COMMENTARY Cybersecurity

A Call to Action—Enhancing Our Capabilities to Counter Cyber Disinformation

Aug 31st, 2020 3 min read

Commentary By

David R. Shedd

Visiting Fellow

Barbara N. Stevens

Social media has proved to be a remarkably effective platform for transmitting disinformation. Westend61/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

In a world that faces an increasing volume of misinformation, America’s foreign policy and national security analyses must be able to separate fact from fiction.

The dearth of women analysts focused on identifying and then countering adversarial information operations handicaps us in responding to malign cyber behavior.

America needs new academic programs that focus on the study of data analytics regarding U.S. foreign policy and national security.

We are inundated with information from a wide array of media, from social media to commercial news feeds. That flood includes large amounts of disinformation. At times, it can pose a threat to national security. As a nation, we are still struggling to respond effectively.

Social media has proved to be a remarkably effective platform for transmitting disinformation. A 2018 study published in Science Magazine, found that false news spreads on Twitter faster than other types of news and has a greater impact. In fact, tweets with false content were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than fact-based tweets.

In a world that faces an ever-increasing volume of misinformation, America’s foreign policy and national security analyses must be able to separate fact from fiction. The sheer magnitude of the job requires an "all hands on deck" mindset and the willingness to pursue non-conventional approaches. For one thing, we will need to expand the talent base, both analytically and diplomatically, of our national security information operations.

Despite being prolific users of social media platforms, women have little impact in analyzing or shaping the responses to cyber-originated disinformation. They remain a small minority among those in the fields of computer science and data analytics fields who have the skills to detect and respond to manipulated information. 

Studies show that women use social media differently and, in more ways, than men. More women researchers are needed to help understand how promoters of fake news are influencing us.

The dearth of women analysts focused on identifying and then countering adversarial information operations handicaps us in responding to malign cyber behavior. It's like a pro football team leaving their offensive coach at home and having their defensive coach call the quarterback's plays. The team may play a competitive game, but they could and should be putting a lot more points on the board. 

The significant shortfall of women in the field of computer and data science is highly problematic. Data scientists are needed to help make sense of data. Computer science skills are needed to develop tools to detect manipulated information. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) have become the new go-to capabilities for addressing large-scale information access, and these require both data and computer science to develop, analyze and interpret the results for geopolitical analysts, policy experts, and the general public. 

Men dominate these fields. The Amazon ReInvent Conference, among the largest gathering of engineers and developers in the world, provides a good snapshot of the challenge we face in bringing greater diversity to data analytics. Of the 65,000 participants in last year’s conference, only one to two percent were women. Why is this? Regrettably, the percentage of women graduating with a computer science degree in 2019 was less than 18 percent, the result of a steady decline since a high of 35 percent in the early 1980s. Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that computer science jobs will increase again by 19 percent by 2026. There are only a few more women obtaining computer science degrees in raw numbers that there were 30 years ago.

America’s adversaries are mounting increasingly sophisticated disinformation campaigns as part of their cyberwarfare strategies. In January 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that whoever controls AI will rule the world. Putin has established AI programs at top universities, along with a national AI R&D center that monitors technical and social trends in AI.

China’s government has also made big investments in AI and ML. In mid-March, Beijing’s operatives pushed messages across social media feeds so pervasively that the National Security Council issued an announcement via Twitter that these messages were fake.

America needs new academic programs that focus on the study of data analytics regarding U.S. foreign policy and national security. The University of New Mexico recently answered the call, introducing a master's level program focused on national and global security that blends data analytics with foreign policy expertise. The engineering department teaches many of the courses—an innovative approach to preparing our next generation of foreign policy experts.

The federal and state governments need to grasp that our national security depends on attracting people with advanced degrees in foreign policy and strong technical skills in computer and data science, AI and ML. America’s “think tanks” also need to hire interns—especially women—with technical credentials to better prepare them to serve in the public sector as data analysts.

Finally, America sorely needs to forge public-private partnerships committed to attracting women in technical fields such as computer and data science and helping them build foreign policy acumen. Absent that commitment, the U.S. cannot achieve its full potential to counter the dissemination of false information.

By working to encourage greater participation by women and educating our national security community about the specific skills women bring to our protecting our nation, we will field a well-rounded team, one better able to counter the growing threats from disinformation campaigns.

This piece originally appeared in RealClear Defense