Source Hacking: Media Manipulation in Practice

Donovan, Joan; Friedberg, Brian

In recent years there has been an increasing number of online manipulation campaigns targeted at news media. This report focuses on a subset of manipulation campaigns that rely on a strategy we call source hacking: a set of techniques for hiding the sources of problematic information in order to permit its circulation in mainstream media. Source hacking is therefore an indirect method for targeting journalists—planting false information in places that journalists are likely to encounter it or where it will be taken up by other intermediaries.
Across eight case studies, we identify the underlying techniques of source hacking to provide journalists, news organizations, platform companies, and others with a new vocabulary for describing these tactics, so that terms such as “trolling” and “trending” do not stand in for concerted eforts to pollute the information environment. In this report, we identify four specific techniques of source hacking:
1. Viral Sloganeering: repackaging reactionary talking points for social media and press amplification
2. Leak Forgery: prompting a media spectacle by sharing forged documents
3. Evidence Collages: compiling information from multiple sources into a single, shareable document, usually as an image
4. Keyword Squatting: the strategic domination of keywords and sockpuppet accounts to misrepresent groups or individuals
These four tactics of source hacking work because networked communication is vulnerable to many diferent styles of attack and finding proof of coordination is not easy to detect. Source hacking techniques complement each other and are often used simultaneously during active manipulation campaigns. These techniques may be carefully coordinated but often rely on partisan support and buy-in from audiences, influencers, and journalists alike.
We illustrate these techniques with case studies taken from 2016–2018, and with a specific focus on the manipulation of American politics. We end by ofering a set of suggestions and new concepts for those attempting to identify the operations of manipulation campaigns or to respond to breaking news events:
• We advise journalists to seek out an abundance of corroborating evidence when reporting on the actions of social media accounts, and whenever possible, verify the identity of account holders.
• We suggest that newsrooms invest more resources in information security, including creating a position or desk to vet chains of evidence through analysis and verification of metadata for evidence of data craft.
• We argue that platform companies must label manipulation campaigns when they are identified and provide easier access to metadata associated with accounts.