What Is Malign Influence and How Can OSINT Address It?

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December 7, 2021

Sometimes governments advance their agenda openly through tactics like military or economic actions. Other times, they may use covert strategies to influence foreign populations and events.

This approach is known as malign influence—and while it’s not new, it’s now considered a critical issue for the intelligence community. 

Back in April 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) announced the creation of a Foreign Malign Influence Center. And according to the National Intelligence Council’s 2021 Global Trends report, future malign influence could “[destabilize] societies at a scale and speed that dwarfs current disinformation challenges.”

In the last decade, we’ve seen the internet change the impact and scale of malign influence, which has interfered with democratic processes and eroded public trust in government.

To keep up with this evolving threat, the intelligence community must monitor malign influence closely so they can understand emerging tactics and develop effective countermeasures. For intelligence teams, this means evaluating the public online sources where malign influence proliferates.

What is malign influence, and how does open-source intelligence help the intelligence community assess and address its impact?

What is malign influence?

Jeffrey Rosen, Deputy Attorney General at the US Department of Justice, describes malign influence as foreign preferences that occur through coercive, covert, or corrupt activities. The goal of these activities is typically to influence democratic processes like elections, or, in Rosen’s words, “to influence policymaking and public discourse more broadly.”

This could look like disinformation or disguised propaganda. It could involve pressuring influencers, like media or politicians, to spread a narrative to a wider audience. Illegal measures, like hacking confidential emails, can also be used for malign influence.

While malign influence takes several forms, it often manifests as a soft power tactic, appealing to audiences to mold their preferences rather than forcing an outcome through coercion.

How is malign influence changing?

Malign influence has existed as long as public elections have been held, but the threat has evolved significantly since the media’s digital transformation. 

Historically, malign influence actors used television or print media to reach the public. Nowadays, online news and social media enable these operations to reach larger audiences and target them more strategically. Online channels also mean that malign influence actors can operate from anywhere in the world and at a low cost. 

The proliferation of social media has presented other challenges for the intelligence community: it’s hard to tell whether content originates domestically or from foreign actors. Malign influence tactics have also become more sophisticated, using technologies like bot networks and deep fakes that are harder to identify, monitor, and combat.

Malign influence is historically associated with elections. But novel techniques also enable foreign actors to influence other aspects of a free society, like public discourse and social movements.

How does OSINT support intelligence teams?

Early in 2021, the CSIS Technology and Intelligence Task Force called for the intelligence community to rethink OSINT as a “cornerstone” of intelligence due to the proliferation of social media. This approach is relevant for understanding and countering malign influence, which relies heavily on public online channels to reach audiences.

Monitoring public social data helps the intelligence community better track and understand emerging malign influence tactics. A variety of sources are relevant for analysis as malign influence actors scale their efforts, including:

  • Mainstream news and social media
  • Fringe news and social media where content is less regulated
  • International social media widely used in foreign information environments

Tracking malign influence operations across these networks isn’t scalable without advanced OSINT tools. These solutions allow analysts to narrow in on relevant data quickly and visualize emerging trends. 

Malign influence is a complex threat, involving foreign actors who engage with global audiences in a wide range of online spaces. This means that intelligence teams must use OSINT solutions that cover mainstream, fringe, and international data sources. This minimizes information gaps and generates more comprehensive intelligence. 

Malign influence strategies are becoming more sophisticated and will likely pose an even greater threat to democracies and free societies than we’ve seen in the last decade. This points to the need for intelligence efforts like the Foreign Malign Influence Center to understand novel tactics and their influence.

Social media and other online public outlets are the intelligence community’s biggest window into malign influence threats. Having the right OSINT tools, techniques, and data sources will be crucial to understanding and countering malign influence as intelligence efforts escalate.

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