CISA looks to industry for anti-troll tools

The agency is looking to bolster its technical capabilities to identify foreign propaganda online that targets specific audiences in the U.S.

social media monitoring
 

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is canvassing industry for advice on predictive analytic tools that can detect and measure the impact of emerging foreign influence campaigns, according to procurement documents.

In a request for information released March 9, CISA announced it is interested in a set of integrated capabilities that would "identify emerging foreign influence activities and then predict the likely impact" of such campaigns. The agency is also looking for a way to analyze past foreign influence operations to better understand who the target audience might be and their likely response to the propaganda.

The capabilities, which include social media monitoring and an analytic engine, would be overseen by the National Risk Management Center and integrated into CISA's communications strategies with the public to identify at-risk populations, prioritize engagement and determine the best medium for outreach across three initiatives. Essentially, CISA wants to be able to identify new or emerging activities on social media "in real-time or near real-time" while also more closely tailoring its responses to smaller slices of American society who are being directly targeted.

CISA's request landed just days before Facebook and Twitter rolled up a Ghana-based troll farm that was disseminating racially charged social media posts aimed at sowing division in the American public. Investigators said they could trace links from the African operation to the Russia-based Internet Research Agency that was blamed for trolling and influence operations during the 2016 election. The influence effort was the subject of a CNN investigative report.

CISA is also interested in ways to measure the actual impact that such campaigns have on American society, a topic frequently debated among policymakers and disinformation experts.

The agency is looking for companies with the backgrounds and subject matter experts to work across seven different tasks. For example, firms that can build algorithms or models that can monitor across specific topics like elections, identify changes in conversation and determine if the content is being produced by a foreign actor. Other tasks include training data models compiled from past online campaigns, setting up weekly, monthly and quarterly reports and providing detailed analysis on communication trends and mitigation strategies.

CISA laid out a potential one-year contract for the work, starting May 2020, with three option years that would take the total contract through 2024. The work is described as unclassified and open source, but CISA notes that security sensitive information may also be required under any follow-up procurement.

While CISA operates as the lead civilian federal agency assisting state and local governments to protect their elections, much of their effort has historically focused on securing voting machines, voter registration systems and other election infrastructure. The FBI continues to lead law enforcement efforts around countering foreign influence, but CISA has increasingly expressed interest in expanding its work around disinformation operations targeting U.S. elections like the kind conducted by Russia in 2016.

On March 11, CISA Director Chris Krebs said the agency stood up a coordination team in February that is focused on how the emerging coronavirus outbreak could impact the upcoming 2020 presidential elections, including threats from online disinformation campaigns to reduce voter turnout and phishing attacks to compromise IT systems.

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