SOCOM looks to combat disinformation in Africa on new governmentwide contract

Staff Sgt. Kyle a U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment – Alpha communications sergeant in 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) uses rock drills to explain small unit tactics to the Senegalese army. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Kulani Lakanaria)

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Special Operations Command Africa plans to use IST Research’s Pulse Platform to combat disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and other issues on the continent and identify those responsible.

SOCAFRICA’s is the first task order on a five-year, $66 million Phase III Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract, awarded solely to IST Research by the General Services Administration last week.

The command wants to continually engage the African population where it’s operating, understand sentiment, and determine if its own efforts to communicate affect the information environment, IST CEO Ryan Paterson told FedScoop.

“There is an enormous machine of disinformation happening in that continent,” Paterson said.

Pulse Platform consists of three components, the first of which is population engagement. The concept emerged from Paterson’s time working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

“We had no mechanism for robust, continuous U.S. communications with the population in a structured manner,” Paterson said. “So different levels of technical insertion, different levels of literacy.”

Pulse Platform allows for a coordinated, remote information campaign through polling and census work, surveys and behavioral change communications designed to reinforce concepts like the importance of hand-washing during a pandemic. A TV or radio advertisement can be followed with messaging on preferred regional apps like WhatsApp and Signal in western countries or LINE, WeChat and Weibo in eastern ones.

The second component of Pulse Platform is social listening, which amounts to understanding conversations, misinformation and disinformation on the internet surrounding issues like the pandemic or the protests of systemic racism in the U.S.

While none of IST Research’s customers specifically asked the company to monitor the protests, nor does it look inside the U.S. “all that often,” it does spend “a lot” of its own money engaged in the information environment, Paterson said. In this case, IST Research was interested in identifying voices “not organic” to the ongoing debate like trolls and bots, he said.

The final component of Pulse Platform is content discovery, basically running analytics on the data coming in from the first two components to identify connections.

“I don’t feel like, as a general population, we understand just how much external forces are driving the discourse in the information environment that makes us all yell and scream at each other on Facebook or whatever the channel,” Paterson said. “We can say it out loud: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea are all active in our information environment causing discord.”

As a result, agencies and the military need to push counter-communications and monitor the information environment in real-time, he said. SOCAFRICA did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

The Phase III SBIR contract is IST Research’s first governmentwide contract and opens the door for other agencies like the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Justice to place task orders as well. Previous IST Research contracts were always with a Pentagon holder, like a five-year, $50 million contract with Army Contracting Command.

While face-to-face survey work remains the “gold standard,” that’s tough right now with coronavirus travel restrictions in place — making Pulse Platform a better “gap filler” than ever, Paterson said. IST Research conducted a COVID-19 survey that touched 300,000 people across about 40 countries and eight languages in five days.

The company made $11 million in revenue last year and estimates that number will be closer to $25 million in 2020, with U.S. agencies getting their “butts kicked” by Russia in the information space, Paterson said.

“We are not as divided as everybody would like us to think we are,” he said.

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coronavirus, General Services Administration (GSA), IST Research, Pentagon, Russia, SBIR, SOCOM, Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA)
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