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27.07.23 Big Tech

What are influence operations and why are we investigating them?

Attempts to manipulate voters threaten elections around the world. So we’re launching a new project to help you understand how you could be targeted

Democracy worldwide is under threat from attempts to manipulate our online lives. A growing pool of paid professionals, state-backed agents and ideologically driven amateurs are targeting our digital spaces. They have access to increasingly powerful tools and the run of poorly protected platforms.

The examples of harmful misinformation and manipulation online have kept coming. For one, we saw how dangerous misinformation about vaccines spread widely during the pandemic. As far back as the 2016 US presidential elections, Russia-backed groups attempted to polarise the public and discredit political figures with fake Facebook groups and leaked hacks.

Two common tactics to manipulate voters are misinformation and “influence operations”. Where misinformation means the creation and spread of false or misleading information, either deliberately or accidentally, influence ops are purposeful projects to skew how people see the world. The two tactics are often linked. Influence ops can take the form of spreading misinformation, but could, for example, also mean boosting something true but relatively minor to take a disproportionate size in online conversations.

The UK election, which has to take place by early 2025, is one of many crucial votes coming up that will be attacked by those who want to dishonestly sway voters.

The best defence against these threats of influence operations and misinformation is making sure the public knows about them. But they are difficult to identify and often designed to be hidden from view.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is launching a project aimed at exposing these threats in the runup to the UK’s vote. We will uncover false narratives and coordinated attempts to sway the public; we’ll find out who is being targeted; and, most importantly, we’ll investigate who is behind these operations.

This will mean investigating the organised networks of manipulators and systemic weaknesses that could damage the UK’s online discussions, driving people further apart and leaving voters confused and misinformed.

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TBIJ’s elections project will be innovative and ground-breaking in its approach, combining existing expertise with the latest analytical tools and input from voters themselves. TBIJ will be looking at social media and other content posted online to identify and trace attempts to manipulate the public. We’ll also use our established connections with local communities to find out who is being targeted and how.

To do this TBIJ will pool resources from different parts of the newsroom, creating a team with the diverse set of skills to take on such a complex challenge. We’ll also partner with the technology and research group CASM to fuse the tools of artificial intelligence and investigative journalism to help us detect online manipulation at scale but also – crucially – the campaigns, organisations and interests behind it.

We’ll build connections with the communities under attack from attempts to manipulate the public, helping identify the most pressing areas of investigation and building resilience on the front line. And we will involve you, the public, because everyone is targeted by these influence operations. We’ll be setting up a tipline so that anyone can share examples of suspicious behaviour or false content online.

Attempts to manipulate the public can take place almost anywhere we talk to each other online, not just the usual suspects of Facebook, Twitter or TikTok. It can come from any end of the political spectrum, or have other motivations: many trying to tamper with our information environment do so not for ideological reasons but for money, or power.

We want this work to go beyond the UK. Once we have developed a way to combine large-scale data analysis with investigative journalism tools, we want to share that knowledge with journalists around the world to help them look into other attempts to influence and manipulate voters.

Ultimately, we will seek to trace influence operations to their source. And where possible, we will aim to expose the perpetrators.

TBIJ particularly prides itself on its ability to spark impact through its reporting and the elections project will be no different. We will ensure that what we uncover becomes the basis of a better understanding of the latest influence operations, be it for voters across the country, MPs and policy makers, or the Electoral Commission itself.

This project is about empowering the public to understand the information threats they face, in the UK and beyond. We hope to be able to draw on support from organisations and individuals that also care about protecting democracy.

We are well set up to take on this challenge, but in order to get the best results we need support. We need to build a team that can cut through the masses of information in front of us. And for that, we need your help. You can sign up for TBIJ’s weekly newsletter to be the first to hear when the tipline opens, and we’ll be running workshops around the country to identify the misinformation and influence ops that communities are most concerned about.

If successful, and your support and involvement can make the difference, we believe we are producing a powerful approach, which we can adapt and share with partners in other countries, be it the US or Estonia. Influence operations target voters around the world and we want to help keep them at bay everywhere.

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Tech Editor: Jasper Jackson
Editor: Franz Wild
Production: Frankie Goodway
Fact checker: Alice Milliken