That's the premise behind "Disinformation" - with award-winning Evergreen host Paul Brandus. Get ready for amazing stories - war, espionage, corruption, elections, and assorted trickery showing how false information is turning our world inside out - and what we can do about it. A co-production of Evergreen and Emergent Risk International.
Fighting Disinformation On The Front Lines in Israel
| S:2 E:9
"... truth is the first casualty of war."
In all times, but especially in wartime, we are challenged to separate fact from fiction. On this special episode of Disinformation, we break from our miniseries on combating disinformation to discuss the recent surprise attack on Israel by Hamas, the evolving nature of information dissemination, and the importance of verifying sources in a fast-moving conflict. We also interview Rafi Mendelson of Cyabra a company that works to combat disinformation in both this conflict and at large.
[00:11:33] Disinformation during wartime today.
[00:09:04] Fake accounts and false narratives.
[00:11:13] State actors and cyberattacks.
[00:12:48] Flood of disinformation.
[00:16:05] Deceptive Imagery Persuasion.
Got questions, comments or ideas or an example of disinformation you'd like us to check out? Send them to email@example.com. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Special thanks to our guests Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International and Rafi Mendelson of Cyabra. Our sound designer and editor is Noah Foutz, audio engineer Nathan Corson, and executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando. Thanks so much for listening.
00:09 Paul Brandus Air raid
sirens in Tel Aviv and residents of Israel's second-largest city scurry
for cover. Videos showed missiles streaking through the night sky, some
exploding in midair after being hit by Israeli defenses. The surprise
attack on Israel came from the neighboring Gaza Strip, a Palestinian
enclave which is controlled by Hamas, which the U.S. government, British
government, European Union, and others have labeled a terrorist group.
Israel wasted no time in launching a counter-attack. Both sides
acknowledge a horrific death toll, the war coming, perhaps not
coincidentally, on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the 1973
surprise attack on Israel by its Arab neighbors. Part and parcel to wars
in this still young 21st century is the evolving way in which we learn
about them. It is easy for anyone today to post images, text and so
forth and claim that it is real. Some of it is, some of it is not. In a
faraway, fast-moving conflict, how can we tell fact from fiction? How do
we know what's true and what we can label disinformation? I'm Paul
Brandus, and that's the name of this series, Disinformation. As usual,
I'll be joined by Meredith Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of Emergent
Risk International, a global risk advisory firm. We're about halfway
through season two of our podcast, and in this episode, we'll talk with a
technology executive in Tel Aviv that's working around the clock to
combat disinformation, not just about the attack on his country, but
disinformation in general. Let's go back in time a little history lesson
that perhaps can provide some context. You've no doubt heard the
well-worn phrase that truth is the first casualty of war. It very often
is, and America's own history provides examples. Some think, for
example, that the Mexican-American War nearly two centuries ago was
launched on the basis of false information. One member of Congress in
the 1840s challenged President James Polk to prove his claims. Let him
answer with facts, the congressman said. The president ignored the pesky
congressman, an obscure lawmaker by the name of Abraham Lincoln. And
remember the Maine? That was the battle cry in 1898, when the United
States went to war with Spain after an American battleship, the USS
Maine, exploded in Havana Harbor, killing an estimated 268 Americans,
the worst U.S. naval disaster prior to Pearl Harbor. At the time,
newspapers, many run by the legendary press barons William Randolph
Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, claimed that either a Spanish mine or
torpedo had sunk the main. The very day after Hearst's flagship
newspaper, the New York Journal, first made that claim, it sold more
than a million copies in one day, a record. But more than a century
later, an investigation showed that the most likely cause of the main
disaster was an internal explosion sparked by an on-board fire. Hawking
newspapers then, and page views, clicks, and shares now, We may get our
information differently, but the same old problem of false narratives,
well, that remains. And what perhaps makes it worse today, and it's sad
to say this, is the democratization of technology. In many respects,
that's a very good thing indeed. And yet, when anyone can be a
publisher, and when anyone has access to dazzling tools like generative
AI, Photoshop, and all the rest, while the opportunity for mischief can
rise exponentially. This means that unlike those 19th century wars I
mentioned, disinformation during wartime today can be far more
ubiquitous. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas is a prime
example. As the battle between Israel and Hamas intensified, a
modern-day media baron, Elon Musk of X, as Twitter is now known, urged
his 159 million followers to check out two feeds which he said were good
for following the war in real time. I'm not going to name them because
neither one appears to be credible. Both, for example, spread a phony
claim back in May about an explosion near the Pentagon. The claim itself
started on a fake Bloomberg account. That fake account was a so-called
verified account that gave it the appearance of legitimacy. Musk took
that tweet down after a few hours, but not before it was seen by
millions. The two sites he touted tweeted their appreciation for the
plug. It's important to remember that the accounts that Musk promoted
are talking about a war, literally matters of life and death. When it
comes to the manufacturing and distribution of content, if there is ever
a time for caution and the exercise of responsibility, it is now when
lives are at stake. In fairness, it's important to add a post-script to
this. Days after Musk promoted those accounts, X said it had removed
hundreds of accounts affiliated with Hamas in an effort to curb the
spread of what X called, quote, terrorist content. The company's new CEO
said the accounts violated its so-called violent and hateful entities
policy. This seems like a good time for a break. When we come back,
we'll go to Israel and talk with a man at a tech company on the front
lines of the war, the war on disinformation.
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This series on disinformation is a co-production of Evergreen Podcasts
and Emergent Risk International, a global risk advisory firm. Emergent
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disinformation. Welcome back. The Hamas attack on Israel has exposed a
variety of Israeli vulnerabilities. One Israeli security official
telling the New York Times quote, we spend billions and billions on
gathering intelligence on Hamas. Then in a second, everything collapsed
like dominoes. Another vulnerability concerns information, videos,
tweets, and so forth. A lot of it is simply false.
09:04 - 09:21Rafi Mendelson
And what we were able to find in the first two days was tens of
thousands of fake accounts across the main social media platforms that
had been created and were now being deployed in order to push forward
various fake false narratives.
09:22 - 09:49Paul Brandus
Rafi Mendelson is a vice president of Cyabra, a Tel Aviv-based social
media threat intelligence company. It works with governments and also
large multinational corporations to identify threats that are coming
from the online and social media space. He says during the first few
days of the war, Cyabra saw a spike in fake content. Up to a quarter of
the content it was monitoring was deemed to be false.
09:52 - 10:31Rafi Mendelson
So that's a very high number. But what we also see, before we even come
to the narratives that they're putting out, we see a very high level of
coordination and planning that went into creating that high level of
fake accounts and the coordination between the accounts themselves. So
there was definitely a lot of planning and preparation that went into
this in preparation for an event like this and the level of
sophistication coordination preparation and planning is definitely
something more akin to a state actor or a very large well organized
malicious actor that we've seen with other examples in the past and
around the world.
10:33 - 10:44Paul Brandus
That's very interesting when you talk about the evidence you have seen,
Rafi, indicates perhaps the participation of a state actor. That was my
10:44 - 11:12Paul Brandus
There's talk that the Iranians are involved behind the scenes in this
attack, the Russians, who of course are aligned in certain ways with the
Iranians. How far Can you go in terms of peeling away the layers of the
onion to find out who are the state actors that you suspect are behind
this? Is it the Russians? Is it the Iranians? Is it somebody else? I
mean, how do you know?
11:13 - 12:30Rafi Mendelson
Well, that's the excellent question that we often receive that everyone
wants to know the answer for. I think I saw yesterday that the White
House spokesperson said that they have, unrelated to social media, but
they have seen a very close coordination and they believe that Hamas has
received the support of Iran, but they don't have the specific
evidence. And I think that would be the case here as well. It's very
difficult to be able to say, okay, here is the room that it's taking
place. Remember, cyber is only scanning publicly available information.
However, there's a lot of knowledge that we can garner from what we are
seeing in terms of the content being put out there, in terms of the
level of sophistication, in terms of the planning that's gone into this.
When I mention about state actors, that's not to say that Saebra can
conclusively draw and say that it is a state actor. But the level of
sophistication that we are seeing here is not a group of sympathetic
supporters that have woken up one day. This is a level of organization
coordination that is akin to a state act or the kind of state act or
activities that we've seen in the past. So yes, this has involved a high
level of planning that I think we should all be aware of.
12:30 - 12:47Paul Brandus
These are the times we live in. False narratives are everywhere.
Meredith Wilson notes that while disinformation during wartime is hardly
new, Russia's war on Ukraine and now the conflict in the Middle East
have shown us that like warfare itself, it has evolved.
12:48 - 13:46Meredith Wilson
I think one of the big things right now that we're seeing is just this
avalanche of disinformation. So it's always been there. It has always
been a tool of war. So that's not new, but what is new is the
proliferation of AI tools now that allow you to create disinformation at
a massive scale and just absolutely flood media channels And when I say
media channels, I mean channels through which you might get your media,
whether it's Google News, Bing News, whether it's Twitter or X as we
call it now. There are a lot more tools out there and very cheap tools
that you can use to create masses of disinformation, to doctor video, to
doctor photos in ways that we couldn't do even two years ago. So one of
the big trends right now is just this absolute flood of disinformation.
13:47 - 14:07Paul Brandus
Also bad, Wilson adds, is something that is now emerging into the
information ecosystem are disinformation attacks on organizations that
call out disinformation. One such organization is the highly respected
Bellingcat, a Dutch company that focuses on fact-checking and
14:07 - 14:43Meredith Wilson
There was a post about Bellingcat saying that the Ukrainians were
providing arms to Hamas. That was absolutely not true. And Bellingcat
had to come out and debunk that information. So there will always be
these new ways of trying to fool people. And so it's just as important
to be keeping an eye on people who follow this, the companies and the
governments that are really good at rooting out disinformation, the EU,
so that you can get a feel for what might be coming next. or what else
you might need to look for.
14:43 - 14:51Paul Brandus Saebra's Mendelssohn agrees that AI, while holding so much potential for good, is a godsend for malicious actors.
14:51 - 15:56Rafi Mendelson
I think the biggest challenge, both for Saebra and also as a whole
industry, is being able to tackle, I suppose, the new front that's
opened up in the disinformation war of the increasing believability of
content as a result of generative AI tools that now allows malicious
actors to be able to create more believable content that is fake. It
might not be incorrect content that is being created by gen AI, but by
its nature, it's inauthentic. That's something that's incredibly
important. Generative AI and the tools and the capabilities that it's
allowed us to do is mostly positive, right? It's fantastic. All of the
different ways that we can use it, we're still not fully sure of how the
potential and how we can fully use it. But at Siabra, we're thinking in
the mindset or from the perspective of a malicious actor. And if you're
a malicious actor, being able to use generative AI, especially if
English is not your mother tongue, you can now create text or images
that are very, very believable.
15:56 - 16:05Paul Brandus Efforts by Sayabra and others have given rise to a new and important phrase, deceptive imagery persuasion.
16:05 - 17:09Rafi Mendelson
Absolutely. I can give a good example of this. So because there's so
much imagery and videos around this particular conflict, and
unfortunately, many of those videos are harrowing and horrible to be
able to watch. we are seeing less Gen AI-created videos, less fake
videos themselves. But what we are seeing are videos that are being used
and taken out of context. And so this is a tactic that is sometimes
referred to as DIP, Deceptive Imagery Persuasion. And so it might be a
video that is taken a small section of and then posted out with a
certain message or a certain narrative and then pushed out by a fake
account. Now, that is what we are seeing an abundance of. One of the
false narratives that we're seeing is videos and instances of Hamas
operatives, terrorists who are standing over hostages, but they are not
or do not appear to be abusing them or being violent towards them.
17:09 - 17:38Paul Brandus
Deceptive Imagery Persuasion. Fancy name for disinformation. Thanks to
Rafi Mendelssohn of Cyabra speaking to us from Tel Aviv. Sound from The
Independent, The Guardian, and Maine Public Broadcasting. Our sound
designer and editor, Noah Foutz. Audio engineer, Nathan Corson.
Executive producers, Michael Dealoia and Gerardo Orlando. And on behalf
of Meredith Wilson, I'm Paul Brandus. Thanks so much for listening.