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Narrative and Social Cyber Forensics to Understand Covert Influence

PI: Scott Ruston, Arizona State University

Year selected for award: 2019

Fusing Narrative and Social Cyber Forensics to Understand Covert Influence

Principal Investigators: Scott Ruston, Arizona State University

Years of Award: 2021-2023

Managing Service Agency: Office of Naval Research

Project Description:
The information domain has become a key battleground of nation-state competition and conflict in the 21st century. With the proliferation of information access via new media technologies, more people have more access to information than ever before. At the same time, this information can be manipulated by nation-state actors through disinformation and propaganda, sometimes with adverse effects on sovereignty and internal political stability. Over the last decade, China has made increasing use of such information operations as part of its “Three Warfares” strategy, which combines psychological, public opinion, and legal warfare.

A key aspect of disinformation and propaganda is narrative, which offers an alternative form of rationality in which information is true, not because it meets standards of evidence and logical reasoning, but because it creates a coherent story and resonates with other stories people already believe. As such, narrative is a vehicle for appealing to values and creating emotional reactions that motivate action. Moreover, it is efficient because of vertical integration, where cultural-level strategic narratives are widely known and accepted by members of a target audience. An example is the “national humiliation” narrative, which portrays China as the victim of centuries of imperialism and mistreatment by Japan and the West. These cultural-level strategic narratives are used to frame events in a local narrative about the here-and-now—for example, linking the South China Sea dispute to Japanese seizure of territory in the late 1800s. These local narratives provide a foundation for individuals to modify their personal narratives to align with the local ones promoted by propagandists and influencing attitudes and behaviors of the target audience. 

As Anglo-European dominance of global economic and political institutions wanes, East Asia and Southeast Asia will only rise in geopolitical significance. Therefore, we study online influence targeting Indonesia and the Philippines that uses vertically integrated narrative to manipulate public opinion and create political action favoring China. Subject matter experts (SMEs) in Indonesia and the Philippines will identify issues prone to influence in each country, as well as insight into online venues of influence, propaganda, and disinformation. We will conduct narrative analysis of how narratives circulating in the information environment align with Chinese strategy/national interests. Simultaneously, we will conduct social cyber forensic analysis to track activity online and the dissemination of ideas and elements of these narratives, and to observe virtual proxies of political action. We will propose examples of vertical integration of online narratives about local event and the Chinese strategic narratives, and then follow up with expert consultation workshops to determine how these narratives align with personal identity narratives and intentions towards action. 

Our research will provide: (1) a comparative study of prominent issues subject to influence; (2) a mapping of the information environment and the flows of the online influence; (3) the degree to which the influence facilitates vertical integration between national, current event, and personal level narratives. This research will help fill the critical capability and knowledge gap the United States faces with regard to China’s engagement in “informationized” warfare, and will more broadly establish a model for effective analysis of strategic influence in the Middle East, Europe and other regions.