DFRLab research highlights from 2023

From the war in Ukraine to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, the DFRLab’s international team of researchers investigated information operations and online harms around the world

DFRLab research highlights from 2023

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We’ve reached the end of another momentous year – one that will reverberate for decades to come. From the war in Ukraine to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, the DFRLab’s international team of nearly two dozen researchers investigated information operations and online harms around the world.

Ukraine continues to hold off Russian aggression, despite the many odds stacked against it. On the first anniversary of the war last February, we released a pair of reports exploring how Russia weaponized narratives before and after its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

In Narrative Warfare, we examined thousands of articles published by Russian media outlets during the ten weeks leading up to the February 2022 invasion, capturing how they consistently made a false case for war using talking points identical to the narratives coming out of the Kremlin. Once Russia laid out its excuses for invasion, it continued to use every means possible to thwart international support for Ukraine, which we investigated in our companion report, Undermining Ukraine. As the year continued, we tracked developments across an array of social media platforms, calculating Russian war fatalities based on death announcements posted to Telegram, and exposing the largest influence operation ever documented on TikTok. And when Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin undermined the Kremlin’s excuses for starting the war and attempted his failed coup in June 2023, the DFRLab pieced together how events transpired on Telegram in parallel with the mutiny’s on-the-ground progress.

Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine was not the only conflict playing out at great cost this year. The final months of 2023 were dominated by renewed conflict in the Middle East, when a Hamas surprise attack on Israel caused the death of nearly a thousand civilians and the kidnapping of hundreds more, leading to Israel retaliating with a massive military operation leaving tens of thousands more dead in the Gaza Strip. As we noted in our December 2023 investigation Distortion by Design as well as in other research, social media platforms became tools of propaganda and disinformation to extremes not witnessed in prior conflicts. This in turn has been exacerbated by policy decisions by the platforms themselves, from Telegram’s hands-off approach to propaganda and graphic content, to X becoming an endless churn of unverified reports. Amid the heavy toll of disinformation on the war is the recurring threat of internet shutdowns. We also examined the importance of connectivity in times of war and reviewed methods being applied in Gaza to circumvent internet shutdowns.

In April, fighting broke out between military factions in Sudan, quickly spiraling into a full-blown civil war. It’s the latest blow to Sudanese civil society efforts to restore democracy in the country, which had already been exacerbated by a 2021 military coup. In our report Democracy derailed: Sudan’s precarious information environment, DFRLab research associate Tessa Knight partnered with Code for Africa’s Lujain Alsedeg to examine the state of digital affairs in Sudan in the lead-up to the current conflict, focusing on the period from the 2021 coup through December 2022.

Telegram has played a key role in the way information traveled this year. We explored the growing use of point-to-point messaging apps in the United States in a report which laid out key recommendations for platforms and policymakers to protect user privacy and free speech, including investing in in-app reporting tools and seeking out collaborations with expert organizations in areas such as counterterrorism and human rights design.

The European Union’s Digital Services Act prompted the first round of transparency reports to be released this year by major social media platforms. The reports included information on platform content moderation practices, ranging from metrics on government requests like takedowns to staffing levels and language competency. As the DFRLab’s Democracy + Tech Initiative noted in its examination of the transparency reports, the most important part of these disclosures is that they can help governments and civil society ask better questions to take steps to accountability, and companies better benchmark against industry standards. 

A helpful framework for this type of analysis is the comprehensive report from our Task Force for a Trustworthy Future Internet, Scaling Trust on the Web. The report discusses a systems-level view of the broader trust and safety ecosystem and highlights where existing approaches will not adequately meet future needs.

Our colleagues at the DFRLab’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative published an interactive markup of the National Cybersecurity Strategy Implementation Plan (NCSIP). NCSIP spelled out how the Biden administration intended to realize the vision of its cybersecurity strategy, released earlier this year. With this interactive markup, CSI staff, fellows, and experts weigh in, weaving their comments line-by-line throughout the implementation plan.

This year we also released the latest installment of our Discourse Power series, which outlines the strategy, capabilities, impacts, and responses to China’s attempts to shape the global information environment. Our most recent report examined China’s discourse power strategy through a frame of “media convergence,” a Chinese term that refers to the integration of internal and external Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda, the online and offline channels for its dissemination, and the mechanisms of oversight on which communications systems rely. To further shed light on the inner workings of Chinese state propaganda, we dove into CCP financial statements to reveal details on the budgets and aims of Chinese influence operations, ranging from news programming to documentaries to feature films.

Last but not least, let’s not forget our deep-dive into panda influence operations. No, that’s not a typo. In 2023, Chinese social media latched onto unsupported claims that US zoos had mistreated pandas on loan from China. This led to a groundswell of memes demanding their return, presenting the pandas as animated heroes bravely representing China in its efforts to foster discourse power over the West.