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Spotlight on our Government Practice

November 2023
 by James Hann

Spotlight on our Government Practice

November 2023
 By James Hann

Digitalis’s Government Practice helps governments to understand and navigate the digital environment, and manage its risks. In a time when rapid developments in AI and social media are creating new challenges for governments, James Hann, Head of Digitalis’s Digital Risk team and Government Practice, explains how we work with governments to provide intelligence and training on debates and issues that are critical to their safety, security and wellbeing.

  1. Setting the scene for how the Government Practice works, what changes to the online landscape are affecting governments today?

We have always maintained a wide range of clients at Digitalis, and have supported government clients in different ways since our inception. Due to our expertise in understanding how information and content appear and travel online, we have typically focused our work with governments on understanding how harmful content spreads and is made accessible to users.

Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have rightly got the industry talking about the risks and threats that the various tools, models, and algorithms pose to democracy, sensible debate, and individual privacy. The ever-increasing availability and accessibility of generative AI tools such as imagery/video content creators, and large language models (LLMs), has created a pace of change that governments and regulators are struggling to keep up with.

As well as the risks, there are of course many benefits that these tools bring, and a key challenge currently facing some governments is how to upskill sufficiently to embrace these benefits. This is one of the key areas that we support our clients on.

  1. Why do government clients come to you, and what kind of challenges are they facing?

The threat that mis- and disinformation pose to our societies is now relatively well-understood, and recent geopolitical events have served to highlight that this threat is growing. In the current conflict in Israel/Gaza, there are numerous examples of years-old footage and imagery from previous events being passed off as current content. Changes to social media algorithms and operating models are also creating issues that, in some cases, are actually reversing progress in areas such as content moderation and fact-checking.

Next year, over two billion people are due to take part in over 50 elections across the world. The scale of the challenge is significant, and as a result we are seeing requests to support governments in areas where the public sector is lacking in expertise and experience. This includes supporting foreign governments with nascent communications functions to understand the true extent and reach of harmful campaigns occurring within their societies, and helping to identify mitigation measures to protect against these hostile narratives.

One particular challenge that governments and regulators are currently grappling with is the availability of certain downloadable LLMs. Some of the models allow for the editing of code, which in turn allows for controls and restrictions on use to be stripped away. Hostile groups and actors are using these tools to create highly damaging and harmful content.

  1. How does the Government Practice approach these new challenges and provide practical support for governments?

We are fortunate at Digitalis to have not only some of the leading search engine experts, but a full team of developers who support our work in identifying mis- and disinformation. We use a combination of our proprietary technology platform and expertise in investigating open sources to help us build insights on these challenges.

We recently supported a government who suspected a hostile third-party actor was attempting to influence public discourse around key events in their country. We were able to demonstrate the presence of coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB) within online conversations, and provide recommendations on how to tackle it.

We advise government clients on various aspects of their digital strategy, and frequently assist with the type of challenges discussed here. In 2021, Digitalis established a dedicated Disinformation Investigations Unit, which conducts our investigations and advisory work as well as carrying out sophisticated research and analysis of trends on these topics.

  1. You have recently carried out some training for a European network. How did you approach this, and what was the impact of the training?

We have been working with the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) for a couple of years now, and are delighted to be able to contribute in a small way to various events and training opportunities. The RAN is an EU Commission-funded body that comprises a network of practitioners working across society to increase understanding and awareness of harmful and radicalising content. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience to collaborate in this way on such an important topic for societies today.

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