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UWT director speaks about influence operations for Laboratory for Analytic Sciences podcast

Last month, Unconventional Weapons and Technology (UWT) Director Dr. Steve Sin spoke about START’s work in researching influence operations for an episode of the "Meet the Performer" podcast series with the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences (LAS) at North Carolina State University.

Sin spoke with the LAS Influence Team on the “Developing Impact and Effectiveness Assessment Tool for Influence Operations” project, which seeks to create a model for measuring the impact of foreign influence campaigns.

“The project really stemmed from the question about how we know what influence operations are being conducted against the American society from abroad, and how they have a measurable effect,” Sin said.

The project team will be developing a preliminary model to measure the impact of influence campaigns by determining an influence campaign's likelihood to galvanize the recipients to exhibit outwardly observable actions.

“We have quantifiable data on the fact that adversaries have meddled with our presidential elections, as well as other elections in between, and we know there are influence operations ongoing about the pandemic and the U.S. response to COVID-19,” Sin said. “The question that we really had was, how do we know if these influence operations are impactful in the sense that they are changing people’s behavior?”

The project team has completed its initial investigation into cognitive dissonance, choice certainty, signal detection and dual-process theories associated with influence impact, resulting in the development of a prototype model.

“Our model is really a socio-behavioral model that looks at the literature from both the psychology of the individual and industrial-organizational psychology, as well as sociology, computer science and communication,” Sin said.

The project team has begun validating its prototype model by testing it against a set of historical cases. Upon completion of the case studies, the team will design and field a survey to collect data on how the general U.S. population responds to misinformation and disinformation within the context of the variables contained in the model.

“We know from years of research that information and reception of information changes people’s thoughts and attitudes, but we don’t know how that actually translates into physical behavior, such as changing your vote,” Sin said. “Do we know that people actually change their behavior as a result of influence campaigns? Do they go out and protest against the U.S. government? Do they join extremist groups because of that messaging?”

The team will utilize the survey results to assign appropriate weights to the variables contained in the model, which will allow the group to develop an operational preliminary model that is ready to undergo further verification and validation. Once complete, the model will provide U.S. government stakeholders increased capability to prioritize responses against foreign influence campaigns.

“We might be able to find an interdiction point to prevent violence, if we understand the different types of activity individuals or groups might go through based on the types of influence operations that are happening,” Sin said. “So using academic theory and literature, we’re trying to translate it into an everyday, practical intelligence tool that the national security community can actually use.”