When Facebook posts and tweets blamed Ukrainian rebels for downing a Malaysian jet there last year, U.S. spies studied social media trend lines to gauge public opinion of the Kiev-Moscow conflict.
The number of Facebook “likes”; statistics on retweets and “favorited” tweets; and other social media analytics told one story.
But intelligence officials know that, increasingly, autocracies are deploying “trolls” – robotic feeds or paid commentators – to sway social media trends. So officials say they were cautious when compiling situation assessments.
Such messaging can become dangerous when it casts doubt on ground truth.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper depends on open source information in addition to classified material, to provide American decision-makers with objective information. There is a concern that social media campaigns orchestrated by overseas powers could distort open-source intelligence gathering, some U.S. officials say.
“As various situations unfold in other countries — and Clapper has got to be able to advise the president and other senior leaders in the government on what are the likely outcomes, what are the range of possibilities — having the best information possible is crucial,” ODNI Science and Technology Director David Honey told Nextgov.
“There are rigorous, rigorous processes to try and always make sure that the information is correct,” he added. “That’s where I would worry: If one of our tools gave an incorrect forecast, it could lead to giving bad advice to the senior leadership.”
Already, adversaries have tried to distort online perceptions, he acknowledged, providing the example of the social media…