going-cyber-the-new-way

Russia’s ‘New’ Tools for Confronting the West: Information Warfare

Introduction

To understand context of this series of posts on Information Warfare please read the Preface section which also includes original resources for these posts. These posts are not intended to be detailed but rather summarise key points of research papers as well as personal commentary that I are believe to be relevant. It is also fair to say that these posts are not intended to be conclusive but rather provide part of an overall complex picture on such a complex subject. I intend to continue researching this topic and share points/commentary which I hope can contribute in some way in shaping a broader discussion of how we can ensure the web space is used-as originally intended-to share ideas/experiences NOT to engage in cyber crimes & information warfare irrespective of political ideology.

Summarised Take Aways & Commentary

Latest Russian Military Doctrine

Russian Military Doctrine approved 26 December 2014 demonstrates Russian view that it is engaged in a full-scale information warfare involving defensive/offensive operations. The practice of this information warfare combines tried/tested tools of influence with new embrace of modern technology and capabilities.

Reasons for Slow Recognition by the West of such Information Tactics;

a) Collective lack of institutional memory among target audiences (born post time when Soviet subversion was a concern)

b) Russia invested hugely in enabling factors to adapt principles of subversion to the Internet age including;

  • Internally/Externally focused media with substantial online presence including RT
  • Use of Social Media & Online forums as a force multiplier in promoting Russian narratives
  • Language skills to engage targeted audience in their own language

Learning from Past Conflicts

a) The Chechnya Experience (1999); After previous failures to dominate traditional media in the initial 5 years of its offensive campaign Russia started shutting down independent reporting, then developed measures ensuring all reporter only filed approved reports from the battlefield to shape domestic & international perceptions of the conflict. This conflict also reinforced the perception that the Internet as a destabilising factor/threat to Russian national security while at the same time the security services continued to develop their experience of this new emerging medium.

b) The Georgia Experience (2008):  Despite the military victory in this conflict the experience demonstrated major deficiencies in the overall military performance. This led to the overhaul of the Russian Armed Forces and the creation of Information Troops dedicated to manage information war from within the military and able to engage audiences on a broad front. The Information Troops would include;

  • Hackers
  • Journalists
  • Specialists in strategic communications & psychological operations
  • Linguists

c) Post Arab Spring Perception (2011): The Arab Spring demonstrated the power of social media to mobilise and organise, to the extent of facilitating regime change – this caused deep alarm within Russian leadership. Lessons learnt from this event in terms of changes in mass communication strategy came incrementally in 2 subsequent changes;

  • Use of Automation: During the Russian elections of 2011-12 and in an attempt to suppress online debate/disrupt social media a large array of pre-positioned Twitterbots and sporadic/highly targeted Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) software attacks were utilised with old-fashioned dirty tricks against opposition leaders.
  • Human Engagement: Analysing results of the above approach demonstrated that automated systems are simply not sufficient, and that dominating mass consciousness online requires the engagement of actual humans. This led to intense investment in human capabilities to direct or prevent online debate and comment bolstered with foreign language training/recruitment.

Coordination of Messaging & Direction of Russian Media: By 2014, the media element of Russian information campaigns displayed following characteristics;

  • Coordination of messaging with centralised direction of political narrative
  • Development of a range of alternative outlets to address all sectors of the target audience with tailored level of sophistication to an extent to which concealed their propaganda function through subtle imitations of objectivity this coupled with willingness of unscrupulous or deluded native speakers to serve the Kremlin against the interests of their own nations
  • State backed Trolling campaigns
  • Sock puppet websites set up to resemble genuine news outlets, but seeding their news feeds with false or contentious reporting that ties in with Russian narratives.

Note that such an approach for influence/manipulation is not restricted to Russia as the United States has also engaged in similar activity as this article demonstrates.  Its just that Russia has learned/applied the lesson effectively during the course of the last few years.

Pre-Ukraine Russian Information Offensives; In the Baltic states Russian-backed media companies and their broadcasting services work in lockstep with the Russian political authorities

Contrasting Western Media’s Ability to Challenge Russian Version of events

The fact that the EU continued to find itself unable to refer publicly to the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine for almost a year demonstrated weakness in challenging Russian narratives. This in contrast with the 1980s where Western news media were able to report the facts of Soviet troop deployments to Syria and Angola among others, entirely untroubled by the denials from Moscow. By the end of 2014 western media started to realise the influence of subversion campaigns orchestrated by Russia began a process of closure or moderation of previously open-access discussion boards and the rolling back of user-generated content online.

In order to understand the role of Information Warfare and how it perceived in the west we need to apply some historical context so we can understand how we got to where we are now. A good starting point is what is termed the Reagan Revolution in countering Soviet disinformation in early 1981. It was at that stage where serious efforts began to rebuild the Intelligence agencies to help undo what intelligence traditionalists considered deleterious effects of reformists in the 1970’s where disinformation was not considered to be a serious security risk. It is also important to understand that some of the failures in addressing this issue effectively is the web of bureaucratic processes & government agencies involved in analysing/responding to this phenomenon; this coupled with the lack of expertise and resources to ensure up-to-date material and a continuous evaluation processes are in place. I always say that government is good at responding to events NOT analysing them-particularly where strategic decisions are concerned. These require objective and an ongoing analysis/evaluation completely dissected from the politics of governance to ensure long term solutions are found and not temporary patches are applied. 

Underestimating Effects of Messaging Techniques:

To an informed observer Russian disinformation often appears clumsy, counterproductive, obvious and easily debunked. This gave rise to a dangerous optimism about the effectiveness of Russian measures, and to a widespread assumption that Russian disinformation was failing because of its lack of plausibility. This mindset underestimated techniques used in online subversion campaigns which can effectively isolate internet users from alternative information and viewpoints through the following mechanisms;

  • Layered Messaging; Passing the right type of web info campaigns to audience based on their web profile & level of sophistication
  • Filter Bubble; Result of a personalised search in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behaviour and search history)
  • Multilingual targeting (including Arabic) to help localise narratives
  • Continued saturation of disinformation

Core Objectives of Disinformation Campaigns

  1. Internal: Controlling domestic & media environments
  2. External; Influencing mass consciousness by creating an environment in which it is hard to distinguish quality information, in order to undermine the objectivity of Western media and promoting Russian narrative

Defensive/Offensive Measures To Control Information Space

a) Defensive Measures

  • Clampdowns on foreign media operations in Russia & the withdrawal of rebroadcasting licences
  • Tighter restraints on internet usage
  • Suppressive measures targeting such media within Russia in an attempt to control this last unregulated subset of ‘national information space
  • Acquisition of control over traditional media companies by Kremlin-friendly individuals
  • Censoring unapproved school textbooks, so that Russians develop an alternate vision not only of current events but also of history.

This template of information control has been applied in a textbook/identical manner by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, particularly ones with special relations with Russia. This leads me to believe that Russian expertise was utilised to develop a sophisticated kickback against aspirations of freedom/democracy that evolved post the so called Arab Spring. That said I believe that these temporary successes to control decent are unsustainable after experiences pre/post the revolutions of 2011.

b) Offensive Measures

Liberal societies and free media provide weaknesses ready for exploitation by a coordinated information warfare;

Western liberal media training proved initially to be no match for the unity of message emanating from Russia the emphasis on balance in many Western media ensured that Russian narratives, no matter how patently fraudulent, were repeated to European and American audiences by their own media and thus validated and reinforced. This coupled with the fact that Russian state-owned media outlets can pay for space in foreign newspapers, gives a tacit validation to their content

On the other hand the recognition by individual Western media that their objectivity and independence are the being subverted by Russian disinformation and troll campaigns has not generally translated into an effective coordinated response.

The Unimportance of Truth & The Power of a Direct Lie

Truth & objective media no longer an ingredient for success in media. A primary objective of Russian disinformation campaigns is to cause confusion and doubt. The provision of multiple, contradictory alternatives to the truth serves the purpose of undermining trust in objective reporting of adversaries & victims. A prefect example of this are Russian claims about the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 in July 2014 to absolve its direct responsibility for this tragedy which have been reported, initially without qualification, by Western media.

The Power of Direct Lie

Dismissing lies as implausible underestimates power of direct lie particularly when unchallenged by compliant media. Western media reporters sometimes lack experience/knowledge when interviewing Russian propagandists in challenging the narratives they support which feeds into validating these lies.

It is also true that countering every single piece of disinformation is labor-intensive and futile because the minimum objective of a lie merely to blur lines between objective/no-objective reporting.

Utilising Political & Economic Influence in Promoting Russian Views/Narratives

Russia’s ability to purchase or co-opt business & political elites to create loyal/compliant networks though bribes/business opportunities is a Russian business culture one that embraces opacity/corruption for political ends. The same influence patterns apply when promoting individuals/political parties abroad where there is a sync in objectives as well as the canvasing for Think-tanks and academic sympathisers.

Conclusion

Pollution of information framework is an established Soviet principle of Reflexive Control. However the real danger is when such influence is transformed from opinion-forming into policy-making processes of western political echo systems, particularly considering a key notion that war staged in minds of participants could be as destructive as traditional wars waged on the battleground.

A Combination of Self Regulation, Awareness & Report/Action Processes are needed now more than ever to reclaim/cleanse the web space irrespective of political ideology.

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