Text in Adversarial Situations

Whenever we, as humans, write or speak we reveal something about ourselves. Part of this is what we want to reveal — the purpose of our communication. But we also reveal a great deal that we did not necessarily intend to reveal, and this is part of what makes textual analysis interesting in adversarial situations.

It’s helpful to think of what is happening when we speak or write as happening simultaneously in two channels:

  1. The content channel, which serves the purpose for which the communication is intended, and is often carried by the `big’ words: nouns and verbs; and
  2. The internal state channel, which reveals information about our mental state, intentions, and feelings, and is often carried by the `little’ words such as conjunctions and verbs.

The internal state channel is what we examined when looking for deception in earlier posts.

We tend to think, intuitively, that we control the content channel consciously, although we can’t control the internal state channel. In fact, we actually do not control either channel very well, at the level of details; although, of course, when we set out to say something we usually manage to get the content we want across.

When we think about communication emanating from bad guys, there are a number of different scenarios:

  1. They are communicating in a public way to disseminate content. They may attempt concealment, but are aware that their communication could be intercepted both accidentally by almost anyone, and by people looking for it explicitly.
  2. They are communicating in a private way to disseminate content. They will have to attempt concealment, and know that communication that is intercepted will be scrutinized carefully.
  3. They are communicating in a public way, but it is their mental state that is most interesting. For example, propaganda is a form of content-filled public communication, but the mental models and intentions behind it are probably of more interest than the content.

Each of these scenarios requires a particular kind of analysis, but the overall structure is the same:

  • Use selection to find potentially interesting communication in the mass of communication in today’s media and internet. This relies on modelling normality; looking for concealment; and looking for evasion (reaction to simple selection techniques).
  • Use analysis techniques on the set of selected communications to extract content, authorship information, metainformation (e.g. traffic analysis), intention, emotional state, deception, and attitudes.

I’ll talk in more detail about these aspects in subsequent posts.

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