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Five Questions with Theresa Payton

Payton walks us through the world of manipulation campaigns, offers guidance to help Gen-Zers spot one, and weighs in on how these tactics could be used with ill intent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

April 29, 2020 //   9 minute read

After beginning her career in banking and financial services, in 2006 Theresa Payton became the first woman to hold the position of White House Chief Information Officer.  She was on the frontlines of protecting the government against cyberattacks then, and continues to be a passionate cybercrime fighter today as CEO of Charlotte-based Fortalice Solutions. 

One of the nation’s leading experts in cybersecurity and IT strategy, Payton played herself on the 2017 CBS reality show, Hunted. Her new book, Manipulated: Inside the Cyberwar to Hijack Elections and Distort the Truth, which at times reads like a spy thriller, is loaded with battlefront stories from the global cyberwar.  She investigates dangerous cyberwarriors out to undermine our democracy in ways that go beyond elections, and offers real time solutions.  In this month’s “Five Questions With…” Payton walks us through the world of manipulation campaigns, offers guidance to help Gen-Zers spot one, and weighs in on how these tactics could be used with ill intent during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Q:  How do you define a “manipulation campaign” and how high are the stakes?

A manipulation campaign often has the primary purpose to target a person or a group of people and influence them to take action. The campaign could promote truths or a combination of facts and misinformation. How they deploy the campaign to reach their intended target involves well-honed techniques and tactics which I call “the manipulator’s playbook.” The stakes are high as the manipulators influence our social discourse and our very democracy. Perfected by the Kremlin to disrupt election integrity and the democratic process, the playbook is being used by players that will shock you against citizens around the world and in all aspects of our lives. It’s not solely about elections. What I have uncovered through years of research is that these manipulation campaigns can be driven by multiple motives, from the ideological to the financial.

 Q:  How could a manipulation campaign be deployed to do harm in the COVID-19 context?

 We have already seen evidence of manipulation campaigns promoting false cures and preventatives which could impact people’s health and lead to more deaths. For the record, Russia and China both deny the allegations that they are promoting manipulation campaigns regarding COVID-19, but research indicates otherwise. Russia has promoted manipulation campaigns that claim COVID-19 is a U.S.-made bioweapon. Iran has promoted that Israel and the U.S. made COVID-19 as a bioweapon. China has promoted positive narratives about the country’s handling of COVID-19 and how they gave the world time to prepare, while also promoting campaigns that the virus originated in Italy – not China – and calling into doubt the U.S. role in the spread of the pandemic.

Q:  You cite many examples of manipulation campaigns in your book.  Which one concerns you the most?

The insidious and innovative methods the manipulators take to disguise themselves as our neighbors and fellow citizens is scary enough, but when that is matched with also discrediting professional journalists, it is incredibly scary.  In chapter four of the book, I talk about several cases where manipulators ruined the lives and reputations of journalists who got in their way. One of the cases haunts me as it is an example of a manipulation campaign leveraging deepfake video to extort and silence a journalist. You may be unaware of the plight of female investigative journalist, Rana Ayyub. Her story needs to be known. Internet trolls created forged social media posts to make it look like Ayyub said terrible things, but they also dubbed her likeness, using deepfake technology, onto a pornographic video and released it online. Thankfully, the United Nations stepped in to negotiate protection for her.

Q:  What should your fellow BCAers be doing to recognize and protect themselves and their businesses against manipulation campaigns?

 For starters, I want my fellow BCAers to realize this isn't just about elections, this is about destroying democracy globally, one issue at a time. I would love to see my fellow BCAers become pros at spotting manipulation campaigns and point them out to our colleagues, friends, and loved ones. Reporting potential manipulation campaigns directly to the social media platforms themselves will help to improve their algorithms to spot manipulation campaigns. Alert your friends. Where appropriate, report them to the authorities. Also, we must all vow to end manipulation campaigns by not spreading them ourselves— even if the headline confirms our own bias on a topic.

By the way, when it comes to Generation Z, as I discuss in the book, I worked with high school Gen Z students and I am raising three Gen-Z kids. Here are five tips to help them spot and stop manipulation campaigns like a pro!

  • Tell children to beware of exclusive stories or footage on social media: Sensationalistic headlines and “news sources” claiming to be the first to break the news are tell-tale signs of manipulation campaigns. In addition to attention-grabbing headlines, things labeled “rare footage” or “never seen before” are a dead giveaway of a deepfake video. If you watch the clip and it seems incredible, then it’s probably a fake.
  • Monitor Their Memes: Memes are easy to share, spread information quickly and they are fun to use. This makes them the perfect weapon to spread disinformation. Tell your kids to be careful when looking at memes online and not to share them if they cannot verify the information in them.
  • Don’t Trust Information Shared in Private Social Media Groups: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms have been working hard to remove disinformation, but private group chats allow for bad actors and trolls to hide in plain sight. Remind your kids that you cannot trust the information – or people – in these private chats or pages.
  • Check the Hashtags: Hashtags are a fun way for people to communicate on social media to discuss similar themes. While hashtags are intended to be harmless, bad actors and online manipulators will hijack legitimate hashtags or make up their own to spread misinformation and help make a story benefiting their cause go viral.
  • Tell Your Kids to be on The Lookout for Fake Personas and Hijacked Accounts: People are not always who they say they are online. Talk with your kids about deciding who to listen to and whom to believe online; that person posing as someone living in your area could be a nation-state persona or an unscrupulous citizen trying to manipulate views of an issue.

Q:  Can you leave us with a favorite moment and a leadership lesson that has stayed with you from your time at the White House?

I have so many cherished memories of my time, but truly one of my favorite moments was providing support on the President’s trip to Europe. One of our flights fell on Father’s Day. My father is retired USMC and when he was on active duty, he was the maintenance crew chief for HMX-1 when President Reagan and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush were in office. I was able to call him on Father’s Day from the plane and hear the operator say, “This is the operator from Air Force One, I have a call for retired Master Gunnery Sergeant Major (yes, my maiden was Major),” so I could call to wish my Dad a happy Father’s Day.

The leadership lesson that I took with me was to always focus on how to leave things better than we found them.

Follow Theresa Payton on Twitter @TrackerPayton