Countering manipulation of information - Executive Education Session

From 7th to 9th December 2022, the French Coordination for Intelligence and Counter Terrorism and the French Intelligence Academy organised a session for the Intelligence College in Europe (ICE) dedicated to Countering manipulation of information.

This session was the first one for the 2022/2023 Executive Education Programme. 19 attendees from 14 member-countries participated.

The session began with a presentation proposed by the CNRLT and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs aiming at introducing the French intelligence community and the French organisation as far as Countering manipulation of information is concerned.

The presentation allowed the attendees to encompass the French context and shed light on the strategy of the MFA. It displayed the articulation between diplomacy and intelligence in this regard and identified the constraints of this endeavour: speed of the dissemination, need for education, dialogue to build with the private sector (platforms)… The national and the European level have been mentioned as complementary.

The second day had to be shortened due to a last-minute cancellation from one of the academic but it was still an intense working day divided between the academic and the defence world and complemented with working group exchanges.

The sociologist Gérald Bronner, professor at Université Paris-Cité and in charge of the commission « Les lumières à l’ère du numérique » commissioned by the French presidency presented part of the report he drafted, on where we stand as far as informational disorders in a digital era are concerned. He mentioned one of his book l’Apocalypse cognitive, which can be a good work basis. The situation we are facing is brand-new. For the first time in the history of Mankind, we have access to an unprecedented amount of information and simultaneously, for the first time we have enough free time to grasp it. One could dream about the advent of a knowledge democracy but unfortunately this is a fantasy. We are facing an information cacophony where anybody’s assertion is considered equal to an expert assessment. This global competition of information has a direct unfortunate consequence: our attention is considered as a precious treasure to attract. Each and every psychological features of our brains are used and abused to “hijack” our attention: cocktail party effect, attraction for conflict, cognitive bias, anchoring effect, social stereotypes. Our democracies are confronted with the interests of a business model where fake news are breaking open the public debate.  Fake news is disseminated 6 times faster than genuine facts, because fake news is easier to digest for our “lazy” brains, eager to satisfy our attraction for radicality. In order to counter this trend, sociology and education are key but not enough per se. A complete educational revolution initiated through a state policy is necessary.

The second academic invited was Paul Charon from IRSEM, author of a report on Chinese influence operation (« A Machiavellian moment » Vimer-Charon). For a long time, China sought to be loved rather than feared but nowadays Beijing is increasingly comfortable with infiltration and coercion. Its influence operations are tougher and its methods are similar to the ones employed by Moscow (Russification). Thanks to numerous examples, M. Charon presented the concepts (United Front, The three wars, active measures…) and the actors (Party, State, Army) to have in mind when speaking about Chinese disinformation. The main targets in terms of manipulation of information were developed (diaspora, media, education, think tank, diplomacy). Finally, M. Charon assesses the effectiveness of this new Chinese posture which can boast some tactical successes but constitutes a strategic failure as the positive opinion about China has collapsed in most of the developed countries from 2019 until today, singularly in South Korea dropping from 70% to 19 %. Faced with this development, China will have to change its methods but will probably keep the same goals. China stands at a transition moment.

Several presentations from state structures were proposed to the audience beginning with the Comcyber belonging to the defence ministry on Countering influence information (Lutte informatique d’influence / L2I). Faced with ISIL/DAESH propaganda and today with Russian and Chinese activities in Africa, the France had to develop a strategy encompassing numerous actors in order to synchronize efforts. The missions of Comcyber are to denounce disinformation through fact checking which is getting more and more difficult as the volume of information is an ever-growing phenomenon. Getting support from the private platforms and obtaining their commitment in content moderation are key. To react to disinformation, anticipation is critical in order to discredit the hostile actor and to persuade the public opinion. Truth is the focus of the French strategy and the main constraint of this fight is the time factor. OSINT is of great help in this battle. This fight is a teamwork.

In this team, the Intelligence services are playing an important part which was developed by DGSI. The mission of the service is focused on securing the independence of information in our democracies. This means identifying the threat to be able to counter the activities of hostile actors through classic counter-espionage methods and through new tools developed by watchmen or to support the activities of those watchmen. To be able to identify the risk, the spectre of potential targets has been enlarged to public-opinion makers far beyond the political arena (academics, think-tankers, journalists, bloggers…).

Disinformation is also based on “controlled” media aiming at influence the diaspora and the public opinion of the targeted country or region, in a far more ambitious strategy. A few foreign services consider disinformation as an offensive tool (active measures) and have updated the “soviet” technics willing to divide the western public opinion, to harm the morale of the population and to hamper the democratic nature of the public debate.

Countering disinformation and information manipulation embeds a digital dimension which was presented both by DGSI and Viginum. Even if Internet was an empowerment promise, it is first and foremost a market place where only the most motivated can get some kind of audience. The services are trying to identify links and relays with digital tools developed to mitigate the risks represented by an unprecedented volume of data.

Viginium is a national governmental, technical and operational structure in charge of the watch and the protection of the country against foreign digital interference.  It has been created in July 2021 and has to safeguard the public debate from digital campaign manipulating information and originating from foreign actors willing to harm France and its interests. It is not an intelligence agency. It is looking for abnormal situations and behaviours in a classic democratic debate in order to be able to characterize this activity. This characterization is done legally and technically thanks to open sources. Three challenges have to be considered: the legal challenge, Viginum has to work in a strict framework not to be blamed about freedom of speech issues, a human resources issue as specific skills have to be attracted to work with this still developing new structure and an operational issue as France had just experienced several electoral campaigns. Here again the collective nature of the effort has been underlined with a reference to the private sector.

A focus on disinformation around the conflict in Ukraine concluded the presentations.

During the module, two working group sessions have been organized allowing the attendees to exchange on domestic protection against external state digital interference, tools against anti-European propaganda outside Europe and corporate technological innovation for the benefit of information warfare. During the working group sessions, attendees have been able to take stock of what they’ve heard during the seminar and to exchange on the basis of their own professional experience. Overall this session of the Executive Education Programme of the Intelligence College in Europe confirmed how critical is the issue of countering manipulation of information in our democracies. France stays confident hat this is not the last time that this topic will be dealt with in the framework of the Intelligence College in Europe.