Cruising an ice floe through an ocean of information junk
The updated map of the information warfare battlefield: How to mitigate the gap between attack and defense.
Alex Alvarova is a media analyst, columnist and author of the books on information warfare The Industry of Lies (non-fiction,2017) and Feeding the Demons (fiction, 2020), dedicated to media theory and propaganda research. She lives permanently in Vancouver, BC.
When disinformation campaigns at scale first began to appear in 2013, none of us had any idea that this was the just a beginning of a concerted attack on the states of the free world and their political leaders. It just looked like “ slow and aggressive people” were multiplying. Eventually, we began to understand this was not a coincidence, but we perceived only few manifestations of the transformation of our information space. We chatted about lies and “fake news”, about distorted or manipulated facts. We discussed some partial manifestations of manipulation campaigns (bias, fallacies, etc. ) and considered them the “great misunderstanding.” Big mistake. It took exactly eight years to unravel the whole wicked thing.
Paradoxically, the pandemic has helped us. Suddenly, a structured picture of the danger we face has emerged. Due to the accumulated efforts of disinformation networks to promote our toxic behavior during the pandemic, their authors and enablers have become intensely visible. The pandemic has allowed us to overlook the battlefield as clearly as ever before. It turned out deeper parts of the glacier that had not been seen before. Above the surface, military operations, such as PsyOps, and memetic warfare appeared. Or even signs of a “networked insurgency”, which is, for example, specialization of general Michael Flynn. Yes, the one that is probably behind the creation of the QAnon digital cult and the project of large-scale anti-democratic radicalization in the US armed forces.
Our original perception of what information warfare means, how it is waged, who pays and who participates has improved so much over the past two years that it is already possible to create a basic ground map.
Let’s start with what constitutes the basic know-how of this modern type of warfare. The two basic pillars lie in the knowledge of our brain and in the knowledge of the mathematical distribution of information of the digital age.
Gateway to our brain
We shall start with the knowledge of a human being. Yes,we fly into space and have gained knowledge of nanoparticles inside matter, but we, ordinary folks, have no idea what’s going on in our brain and how we really make our own decisions. The general atmosphere of contempt, hovering over the humanities as a stigma, has caused our blindness to the consequences of overly rapid research in this field used for advertising and military. It began sometime around 2005 at the University of Cambridge and quickly gained momentum, especially for military operations.
Behavioral sciences uncovered the strange laws of our subconscious decision-making, and taught us that we (based on heuristic) act first and post-rationalize what we have done later.
This finding still shocks many of my friends today. Stefan Sarvas , director of the behavioral labs Mars-Wrigley, was the first to explain it to me. The knowledge is used in many areas of sophisticated sales, election campaigns, government strategic communications, or information warfare. Added to it is incredibly advanced knowledge of neuroscience, which shows how our decision-making is affected by neural processes inside the brain. Again, this is an unimaginably deep level of knowledge until recently. The first known military sub-contractor to de-radicalize Muslim youth was the infamous Cambridge Analytica. And of course , when you control your field in such a way that you are able to de-radicalize masses, you are also able to radicalize them for another client. Unfortunately, this became true and the customer was none other than American billionaires and eventually Russian Lukoil.
What is the distribution key?
The second pillar of the new information war is mathematics and artificial intelligence, the myriads of amazing machine learning algorithms. If you want to fundamentally disrupt the nature of information distribution that people have adopted since the beginning of the printing press (the top-down model of mass media distribution), you cannot do it without online platforms and social networks. They adopted a new business model, created by Google and improved by Sheryl Sandberg, the clever daughter of Russian emigrants from Florida. This business model is based on mining and trading Big Data, mainly of a psychological nature.
Shoshana Zuboff, professor of economics at Harvard, wrote a brilliant book about this extraction model and the “mining” race The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019). I suppose that the successful introduction of these business models into Facebook and its subsequent takeover of the world’s information space was the “nuclear weapon in computer science” that Putin’s cybernetics adviser Andrei Krutskikh boasted in 2016 when he bragged that he would re-establish a balance of power between Russia and the West. The Russians invested heavily in Facebook with money through their oligarch Yuri Milner at a time when Zuckerberg needed money.
An information environment was created, dominated by social network algorithms. They overwhelmingly distribute information that makes us angry, hurt, scared or outraged. This will cause us to stay on the platform longer and leave more psychological reactions in the form of valuable data. This data is then sold as a modern uranium-235, serving as the necessary fuel for targeting psychological disinformation campaigns. With Big Data analysis, every political campaign stands or falls. The environment is so complex and massive that you simply cannot proceed without machine analysis .
One marketer with a good “nose” is no longer enough. You need millions of data from social, health and financial databases, combined with psychological background data from social networks or clicking on search platforms. Every mouse movement, every word, every emoticon is carefully measured and evaluated. From the data, you can also read unbelievably precise and bizarre things as (just a random example) “the vast majority of people who love the Hello Kitty brand also hate Israel”. The data is the ticket to the first league of political campaigns and information warfare. You cannot attack or defend without them. Precisely because it takes such an enormous amount of them to evaluate, machine learning and analytical software are involved in every game.
The result is a “transformation of communication” across the planet. People have usually a normal, average share of mistakes, superstitions and stupidities in their communication, which form a natural part of human cognition. With the advent of mass media, this mathematical model of distribution changed for the first time. The misuse of the mass media for propaganda has led to several terrible wars in the last century. The last one with a mass media start was the war in the Balkans. The propaganda stir-up on both sides is brilliantly and chillingly described by the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić in her book The Culture of Lies (1996).
After the Second World War, democratic states felt the urgent need to regulate the mass media so that their terrible abuse would not be repeated. Public media ended up under the reliance of a variety of laws, codes and journalistic unions that created ethical and professional standards for journalism.
The world of social media and platforms changed our distribution model for the second time and is not subject to any regulation. The only rule is the profit and the appeal to the crowd that boosts this profit. The share of mistakes, superstitions and stupidities in our communication rised exponentially. The consequences were not long in coming.
Information Warfare Battlefield and Memetic Shield
In 2015, analyst Jeff Giesea wrote a study for NATO on the need to use memetics in information warfare. Because of NATO’s lukewarm approach, this ambitious but amoral man ended up in Trump campaign giving him the opportunity to rise himself. We already know that the success of the Trump campaign was mainly due to precisely targeted fireworks of memetic attacks produced in paramilitary cells of “digital warriors”, as General Flynn called the young radical incells on meme boards and social media. Memetic warfare is the main trend today. It is based on the knowledge of the human brain, which teaches us that you have only three seconds to get people’s attention when scrolling in the stream of information. It’s a “do or die” fight.
Whether you’re a comedian, a salesman, or a university expert, if you don’t impress in three seconds, your work will sink into the unknown in the architecture of social media and “the dog won’t give a s**t.” Because the role of information authority has disappeared, the university expert is now at a severe disadvantage against singers, comedians, rioters, wrestlers and Yiannopouloses.
Science is not interesting, therefore it does not get space. It doesn’t make money for Zuck. Memetics, i.e. influencing decision-making through micro-units of psychological information such as images, jokes, posters, rhymes, “messages”, hashtags, is simply in.
After the tactics of memetic attacks began to be used by the Chinese against Taiwan, the concept of the so-called memetic shield was born. It is a completely unorthodox way of defense. It relies on expensive and precise analysis and prediction of the occurrence of attacking memes in the information space and on the creative and quantitative capacity to repel and return the attack towards the attacker’s pitch. In Taiwan, they took advantage of the fact that people (citizens and the state administration) were able to agree on the correct identification of the enemy (China) and the nature of the threat (influencing opinion and decision-making). If only we could do the same…(sigh).
Since the main principles in this game are the speed of response and the amount of memes produced and shared, it was necessary to train a huge number of people and synchronize their activities with the analytical capacities of the state. Again, it is worth remembering that without high-quality data and expensive analysis, the reaction makes no sense and can even be counterproductive.
Psychological operations and cults
Perhaps the biggest cry of the season is the discovery of the fact that in the disinformation game there is an active use of military knowledge in the field of psychological operations and the artificial creation of online sects (cults) whose purpose might be political, commercial or destructive. The creators of these cults seek to form large groups of the population that have related characteristics and are characterized by the same psychological weakness — a tendency to create a strong social dynamic of decision-making made by a guru.
Whether it is Elon Musk (cryptocurrencies), Donald Trump (political influence), guru Moon (money, political influence) or a mysterious anonymous hiding under the letter Q (QAnon, a destructive cult founded by military professionals). Since the seventies, they have been on the rise in America, which has no regulation for the number and registration of churches and religion movements. (European states don’t lack a proper regulation for new religion movements, however, there is almost everything allowed in the online space…so no problem for the attackers at all).
The most famous cults (Scientology, Moonists and sex-cult NXIVM) have recruited some of the most famous American celebrities into their ranks, some as influencers for the recruiting, others as heirs to wealthy companies that have been robbed of their fortunes in the cult. The dynamics of hierarchy and decision-making in the cult allow for enormous control, which is also amplifiable by social network algorithms. Analyst David Troy, who has been involved in long-term propaganda research, discovered in the last year during the pandemic a remarkable correspondence between the classic playbook for creating cults and the behavior of America’s biggest cryptocurrency promote
We talk now of being in a biological warfare waged by information means. It is perhaps impossible to define the current situation more precisely. We have entered the most developed (but thankfully done in the open now) war through so-called complex influence operations. Fortunately, we can already see who we have against us, where the money comes from and what modern techniques and technologies are used. NATO in its official documents speaks of cognitive warfare, politicians who are not yet bought or compromised by those attacks are beginning to gain insight, and armies are learning flexible and, at first glance, often unorthodox or undignified types of reactions that help defend the integrity of our distorted information space.
The goal of information attacks continues to be the demoralization of opinion-makers, the division and panic of the population, the distribution of anger and offensive moods, the slow habituation to life without values based on the constitution,faith,democracy,decency, respect, mutual help, and scientific knowledge.
The darkest hour occurs just before dawn. The most important thing is that we can at least see who is attacking us from the darkness of social networks. The balance of forces between the attacked and the aggressors will soon turn in our favor. Hold on and keep going, folks.