Influence

Influence projects focused on identifying and characterizing malign foreign influence campaigns. The Influence team’s efforts this year focused on three distinct but related areas of research. This included efforts on developing capabilities to detect social media influence campaigns, this year with a focus on campaigns that crossed multiple social media platforms (Social Media Influence Campaigns) as well as work on understanding and characterizing economic influence campaigns focused on a country's leadership, also known as elite capture (Economic Investment Influence Campaigns). Additionally, the Influence team researched methods to measure the scope and effectiveness of a foreign influence campaign (Effectiveness Measures for Influence Campaigns).

Team Leads: Stephen Shauger, Christine Brugh

Social Media Influence Campaigns

Participants: Rob Johnston (Johnston Analytics), Clint Watts (Miburo Solutions), Brent Younce (LAS)

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Social Sifter, now in its third and final year, is a project focused on detection and characterization of foreign state-sponsored social media influence campaigns. This video describes the background and goals of the project, an overview of the current Social Sifter prototype, and descriptions of the machine learning models which form the core of the project.

Participants: Nate Schaefer (NCSU), Anthony Weishampel (NCSU), Nikhil Ankolkar (NCSU), Dominic Agnelli (NCSU), Khuzaima Hameed (NCSU), William Rand (NCSU) Brent Younce (LAS)

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This video documents two projects, led by graduate students at NC State, which aim to model and understand social media influence campaigns in support of the wider Social Sifter effort. This includes an early investigation into the spread of discussions and influence campaigns across platforms (such as between Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube), which aims to build on prior work focusing on single platforms. This video also describes a project which investigates the utility of network motifs in understanding the evolution of influence campaigns at a network level, with an aim to build on prior work which has typically focused on modeling at an individual account level.

Participants: Manali Shirsekar (LAS), Brent Younce (LAS), Rob Johnston (Johnston Analytics), Christine Brugh (LAS)

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Influence campaigns are a modern form of propaganda in which foreign adversaries use social media platforms such as Twitter to strategically disseminate disinformation using posts that originate from seemingly regular users. We propose a stylometry approach to tweet classification with the goal of identifying if tweets/user accounts are from an influence campaign or from a regular social media user. We evaluated features inspired by traditional stylometry techniques, such as punctuation counts, emoji usage, and tweet interaction metrics to determine if these model inputs would enhance classifier performance.

Participants: Paul Narula (LAS)

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This video explains our definitons for key terms used in influence operations while also explaining their uses in context. Where appropriate, these definition articles include historical information and recent examples which form the basis for word etymologies. In some cases, these words or phrases did not previously exist (for example, coordinated inauthentic behavior). In other cases, the words were formed some time ago, but have taken on new meaning in the context of modern influence operations. Some examples of this are bot, digital astroturfing, gaslighting, and troll. Finally, we explain the difference between related words like disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation. We do not claim these definitions to be authoritative for the intelligence community, but rather hope they are useful to understand LAS's Influence Team's work.

Economic Investment Influence Campaigns

Participants: William Boettcher (NCSU), Serena Waters (NCSU), Kathryn Early (NCSU), Rob Johnston (Johnston Analytics), Soumendra Lahiri (WUSTL), Dhrubajyoti Ghosh (WUSTL), Natalie Kraft (LAS)

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No longer merely “drifting” towards a new Cold War; the U.S., China, and Russia are hurtling towards a new era of Great Power struggle for influence and allies. Around the world, China and Russia have embarked on sophisticated campaigns to develop “friendly” local governments. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) focused its economic wealth and government dominance of industry on massive development projects, tying the fate of local elites to Chinese largesse and allowing China access to markets, resources, and occasionally military bases around the world. Not to be outdone, Russia has similarly made inroads in Central Africa and Latin America, working with governments with dubious human rights records and providing access to technologies often restricted by the U.S. In the developed world, both countries attempt to gain influence in politics, economics, and society through social media campaigns, strategic trade and investment policy, and cultural programs. In this project, we examine Chinese and Russian influence campaigns in Sweden, Italy, Malaysia, and New Zealand and supplement traditional case studies with social media analyses and subject matter expert interviews. This video provides an overview of the project and concludes with prescriptions for combating these campaigns with U.S. and European defense and intelligence capabilities.

Participants: Serena Waters (NCSU), William Boettcher (NCSU), Rob Johnston (Johnston Analytics)

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In this project, we examine Chinese and Russian influence campaigns in Sweden, Italy, Malaysia, and New Zealand and supplement traditional case studies with social media analyses and subject matter expert interviews. This video covers the Sweden and Italy case studies in detail.

Participants: Kathryn Early (NCSU), William Boettcher (NCSU), Rob Johnston (Johnston Analytics)

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In this project, we examine Chinese and Russian influence campaigns in Sweden, Italy, Malaysia, and New Zealand and supplement traditional case studies with social media analyses and subject matter expert interviews. This video covers the Malaysia and New Zealand case studies in detail.

Participants: Natalie Kraft (LAS), Christine Brugh (LAS), Michelle Winemiller (LAS)

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This project aims to understand and visualize the complex relationships between Chinese foreign investment, public opinion on Chinese development, and microeconomic features. Focusing on the influence caused by the Belt & Road Initiative, spatiotemporal analysis of institutional strength, standard of living, public opinion and financial expenditures has led to the identification of feature sets indicative of positive and negative sentiment toward China. Our goal is to utilize these feature sets in the predictive modeling of global changes in sentiment to support analysts’ workflow and prioritization of US counter influence efforts. A comparative analysis has been conducted across case study countries - Malaysia, Italy, Sweden, and New Zealand - using logistic regression and random forests for variable identification. Hierarchical clustering is utilized to identify trends within groups of similar perception toward Chinese influence. In support of this line of research, a dashboard prototype is in development to support the analysis of microeconomic indicators, BRI predictive feature sets and public sentiment. We aim to provide these insights to users to interact with and develop rationale for independent case studies to support mission-relevant objectives and support analysts' workflows. This prototype demonstrates the feasibility and promise of continued visualization and modeling of BRI impact globally.

Participants: Natalie Kraft (LAS), Christine Brugh (LAS), Michelle Winemiller (LAS)

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In 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative was formally announced as China’s development strategy and pathway to becoming the world’s leading economic power. Since then, China has poured over 426 billion dollars in foreign direct investment, firm takeovers and BRI expenditures. During this time, sentiment toward Chinese influence has become increasingly negative. Evaluating past Chinese influence patterns and predicting its impact on local sentiment remains a critical component to understanding the long term impact the BRI will have on the global economic order. To aid the work conducted by the Elite Capture team, a dashboard prototype is in development to support the analysis of microeconomic indicators, BRI predictive feature sets and public sentiment. We aim to provide these insights to users to interact with and develop rationale for independent case studies to support mission-relevant objectives. Analysts should be able to utilize modeling to explore qualitative assumptions about local regions, predict changes to sentiment on the ground, and address any concerns of future investments in regions.

Participants: Dhrubajyoti Ghosh (WUSTL), William Boettcher (NCSU), Barney Johnston (Johnston Analytics), Soumendra Lahiri (WUSTL)

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This presentation summarizes some graphical and analytical tools for analyzing influence campaigns associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China in different socio-economic categories. It uses survey data to study changes in public perception about China's influence campaigns pre-BRI and in recent years. It also describes land acquisition patterns over the world by different countries that can be associated with influence campaign efforts by various countries including China.

Participants: Dhrubajyoti Ghosh (WUSTL), William Boettcher (NCSU), Barney Johnston (Johnston Analytics), Soumendra Lahiri (WUSTL)

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This video shows different features of a set of R Shiny Dashboards that can be used interactively to identify top countries across the world that are targets of BRI investments by China and other adversaries, and immigration from China over several years (starting in the 1990s to 2018)

Effectiveness Measures for Influence Campaigns

Participants: Steve Sin (UMD-START), Megan Rutter (UMD-START), Rhyner Washburn (UMD-START)

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Strategic adversaries and competitors of the United States have come to view influence operations as an effective, low-cost, and low consequence (for the influencer) means of advancing their goals and agendas. Given our adversaries and competitors’ view of influence operations, and the immense implications and potential consequences of them, there is a need for research that will advance the state of the art in detecting, characterizing, and countering state-sponsored influence campaigns (operations). While there is a large volume of work that has been done to understand the nature and effects of influence operations, as well as exploring various methods to counter them, there is a dearth of work that examines the impact and effectiveness of influence operations. This project seeks to contribute to our understanding of impact and effectiveness of influence operations by developing a methodology to measure the impact and effectiveness of foreign influence campaigns. Additionally, this project seeks to develop an initial generalizable model that can be applied to measure the impact and effectiveness of foreign influence campaigns that, when fully matured, will allow the United States to more effectively prepare for, counter, and neutralize nefarious foreign influence campaigns.