While much of the work of uncovering information operations has been done by academia and private threat intelligence companies, international civil society has played a prominent role in uncovering information operations. Again, because of its role facilitating cooperation between members of potentially disparate groups, CSOs are often best placed to identify emerging campaigns that target vulnerable groups that might not otherwise be visible, and to mobilize responses.
In Ukraine, groups like StopFake have developed methods for digital exposure, reporting, and the public awareness-raising of campaigns, while groups such as Texty have collaborated with NDI to develop maps of networks, content, and critical trends within that context.
The DC-based Digital Forensics Lab (DFRLab), for instance, has identified a number of coordinated information operations, with many of those operations designed to discredit elections. Over a one-month period, DFRLab published work exposing various forms of information operations in Ukraine, Georgia, and Nigeria. Past work on Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Bolivia has advanced understanding of disinformation actors in Latin America. Those investigations are critical to informing election integrity work. Domestic groups also play a critical role. In Colombia, groups such as Silla Vacía, Linterna Verde and Liga Contra Silencio have worked to explore the online space in both open networks such as Facebook and Twitter and more closed ones such as WhatsApp during elections, the referendum on its peace process, and other political events. As a specific example of how civic groups can identify emerging harmful narratives and link them to the interests of citizens more broadly, Linterna Verde has focused on online discourse focusing on female candidates online with the Liberty of the Press Foundation (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa or FLIP) and how disinformation about women spreads online in the context of the 2018 presidential election.
While the field is, by its nature, very accessible, many of the resources that digital forensics researchers rely on, including how-to guides for beginners, are often only available in English or a limited set of languages and are not widely known.
As a specific example of how civic groups can identify emerging harmful narratives and link them to the interests of citizens more broadly, Linterna Verde has focused on online discourse focusing on female candidates online with the Liberty of the Press Foundation (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa or FLIP) and how disinformation about women spreads online in the context of the 2018 presidential election.
Again, this early warning and response is important not only for protecting vulnerable groups that are the targets of these emerging campaigns, but to mobilizes responses in a way that maintains the integrity of the broader information ecosystem, including for members of groups that are not necessarily marginalized.
Digital forensics efforts are also being conducted by grassroots civil society organizations, and there is evidence of impact. For instance, days before the 2019 election in Moldova, Facebook removed over 100 accounts and pages identified by the civil society group, Trolless, as engaging in inauthentic behavior. Internews has also developed methods to track rumors in contexts starting in Liberia in 2014, which it has built into a detailed methodology that is part of its learning collection of resources for training on disinformation and other media issues. However, a great deal of work needs to be done to ensure that local civil society groups have access to digital forensics expertise and the media monitoring tools that help researchers identify issues. NDI has developed the guide to Data Analytics for Social Media Monitoring and translated it into Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish, partly to address this gap in the research community. More examples are available in the Intervention Database.