Propaganda in the digital age: How cyber influence operations erode trust

Threat actors are constantly getting savvier when it comes to evading detection and influencing public opinion. Savvy companies are taking measures to detect, disrupt, defend, and deter propaganda campaigns by foreign aggressors.

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By Microsoft Security

Across the domestic and international stage, nation-state actors are increasingly using sophisticated influence operations to distribute propaganda and impact public opinion. These campaigns leverage various methods and technologies to erode trust, increase polarization, and threaten democratic processes. The result is a 900% year-over-year increase in the proliferation of deepfakes since 2019.

Skilled Advanced Persistent Manipulator actors use traditional media with internet and social media to vastly increase the scope, scale, and efficiency of their campaigns. Synthetic media is also becoming more prevalent due to the proliferation of tools that easily create and disseminate highly realistic artificial images, videos, and audio. This technology is advancing quickly, and we are close to reaching the point at which anyone can create a synthetic video of anyone saying or doing anything.

To combat this trend, organizations must take a holistic approach to protect against cyber-influence operations. Read on to learn how to detect, disrupt, defend, and deter propaganda campaigns by foreign aggressors.

The lifecycle of a cyber influence campaign

There are three stages to a cyber influence operation. First, you have the pre-positioning stage in which foreign entities introduce propaganda or false narratives to the public domain. This can take place on the internet, as well as via real-world events or provocations. False narratives that go unnoticed on the internet are especially troubling, as they can make subsequent references seem more credible.

Next, there is the launch phase. This involves a coordinated campaign to propagate narratives through government-backed and influenced media outlets and social channels.

Finally, we have the amplification phase in which nation-state-controlled media and proxies amplify narratives inside targeted audiences. Oftentimes, they rely on unwitting tech enablers to extend the narrative’s reach. This can include companies that register internet domains, host websites, promote material on social media and search sites, channel traffic, and help pay for these exercises through digital advertising. Organizations must be aware of the tools and methods employed by authoritarian regimes for cyber influence operations so they can detect and prevent the spread of campaigns.

Cyber influence campaigns can lead to several types of harm, including market manipulation, payment fraud, vishing, impersonations, brand damage, reputational damage, and botnets. However, a longer-term and more insidious threat is our understanding of what is true. If we can no longer trust what we see and hear, any compromising image, audio, or video of a public or private figure can be dismissed as fake. This phenomenon is known as The Liar’s Dividend.

A holistic approach to protecting against cyber influence operations

Cyber influence operations grow increasingly sophisticated as technology evolves at pace. We have seen an overlap and expansion of the tools used in traditional cyberattacks being applied to cyber influence operations. Additionally, nation-states are increasingly coordinating and amplifying each other’s efforts.

There is a growing need to help consumers develop a more sophisticated ability to identify foreign influence operations and limit engagement with their narratives or content. Increased coordination and information sharing across government, the private sector, and civil society is needed to increase transparency and expose and disrupt these influence campaigns. Below are four strategic pillars for helping protect against foreign propaganda:

  1. Detect: The first step in countering foreign cyber influence operations is developing the capacity to detect them. No single company or organization can make the progress that is needed. New, broader collaboration across the tech sector will be crucial. Progress in analyzing and reporting cyber influence operations will rely heavily on the role of civil society, including in academic institutions and nonprofit organizations.
  2. Defend: The second strategic pillar is to shore up democratic defenses, a longstanding priority in need of investment and innovation. We must account for the challenges technology has created for democratic societies—especially the disruption of journalism and local news—and the opportunities technology has created to defend democratic societies more effectively.
  3. Disrupt: As we think about countering cyber influence operations, active disruption plays a critical role. The most effective antidote to broad deception is transparency. Widespread analysis and reporting on nation-state threats, combined with threat intelligence and geopolitical analysis, can inform effective responses and protection.
  4. Deter: Finally, we cannot expect nations to change their behavior if there is no accountability for violating international rules. Enforcing such accountability is uniquely a governmental responsibility. Yet increasingly, multistakeholder action plays an important role in strengthening and extending international norms.

More than 30 online platforms, advertisers, and publishers—including Microsoft—signed on to the recently updated European Commission’s Code of Practice on Disinformation, agreeing to strengthen commitments to tackle this growing challenge. Like the recent Paris Call, Christchurch Call, and Declaration on the Future of the Internet, multilateral and multistakeholder action can bring together the governments and public among democratic nations. Governments can then build on these norms and laws to advance the accountability the world’s democracies need and deserve.

While threat actors are constantly getting savvier when it comes to evading detection and influencing public opinion, organizations are consistently strengthening their defenses, too. By increasing coordination between public and private entities, we can better combat digital propaganda and protect our collective operations against harmful foreign influences.

For more information on the latest nation-state threats and emerging trends in cybersecurity, check out Microsoft’s Security Insider.


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