Demos Daily: Warring Songs

As online conversations become the norm, it’s crucial to be aware of how false information can spread through online spaces, whether through good or malicious intentions. In a health crisis, it’s more important than ever that we are consuming and sharing accurate, reliable, verifiable information. And misinformation can take many forms – from total falsehoods to misattributed or misleading content, which might be harder to spot. Last year, Demos investigated information operations online, and found that the manipulation of information can come in many forms, which governments, platforms and users should strive to challenge. 

Read the introduction to our report on information operations in the digital age, Warring Songs, below, and read the full report here.

The poisoning of online discussions of the world cup in 2014 by a group calling itself Islamic State took many by surprise. Without warning, internet users were encountering horrifying images and terrorist propaganda, spoonfed onto their devices as they tried to follow the football. It was, for many, their first contact with an internet that had become a battlefield. 

The trickle of warnings soon gave way to a deluge: the Cambridge Analytica scandal, surrounding the company’s use of personal data to target political advertising broke in March 2018. Social media’s pivotal role in the spread of anti-Rohingya content in Myanmar broke later that year. Elections from the US to France, from Hungary to the Philippines, from Italy to India added new stories to a growing tapestry of digital manipulation.

It is now clear: the past decade has seen democracies around the world become the target of a new kind of information operations, a war that governments have frequently failed to prepare for, recognise or respond to effectively, a war that required new definitions, descriptions and labels that we often didn’t have. 

This report aims to change that. We propose a framework through which the aims, strategies, tactics and actors participating in information operations can be understood. We begin by defining information operations, stressing the breadth of tactics and strategies we must contend with and building a taxonomy of information operations. We expand this with three case studies of Russian information operations in Germany, France and Italy examining the patterns and themes in tweets definitively attributed to Russian information operations. Finally, we set out some lessons, and reflect on the ramifications of our conclusions for EU policymakers in advance of the upcoming EU elections. 

This report would have not been possible without the time and effort of our partners at OSEPI. In particular, we would like to thank Iskra Kirova, who guided our questioning from the outset and provided invaluable feedback throughout. 

Information operations are an incredibly complex subject. It defies clear-cut definitions. It involves a dizzying array of actors, participants and targets, it tests the boundaries of governmental responsibility, and it mutates and transforms at a breakneck pace. This short report cannot be a comprehensive analysis, but we believe is a vital step forward in understanding what governments around the world are up against. Responses will require a coalition of partners in government, technology, civil society and the wider public. We hope this report goes some way towards this.

Alex Krasodomski-Jones