“In order to mitigate the gap between offence and defence, you have to have an attacker's mind.” Nadav Zafrir
Every major crisis entails the need for calibrated communication with restrained and verified outcomes. The pandemic even more so. In military terminology, the so-called strategic communication, and its implementation and rehearsal take years for one average state. Countries not affected by the populists' information warfare, still functioning normally have all managed to implement it — fully or partially. The others pay a high price.
This is a blogpost about a country, which has the highest infection rate in the world at the moment. Today, I have to watch my neighbours dying even faster than my parents did during World War II. Small and beautiful heart of Europe, Czech Republic. Nothing like this has happened in the Czech environment since 1938. The country is sinking in total information chaos. An experimental territory of information warfare, where people, confused and angry, can not recognize the fact from manipulation any longer.
What we are wrestling with acutely now is not just an ignorant state, but, above all, the attacks by hostile actors on our information environment that are turning confusion into a deadly viral cocktail.
Russia and China are flooding our well-intentioned neighbourhood debate with provocations, manipulative memes, they are together, hand in hand, investing in the massive spread of lies about infection. They use all available channels and technology on our Czech territory. Even if we had an enlightened government (which we don’t), our information space would still be choked with toxic narratives. According to the findings of analytics firm Semantic Visions, the Czech space is flooded with 25 times more disinformation than the United States.
The diagnosis of Information Warfare
The loss of any information authority is the first sign of a divided nation. This authority was once represented by the state, its institutions, universities, science, judges, and lawyers, people with a high degree of expertise. Before, to explain a messy problem to the public, television used to invite a so-called “talking head,” a specialist in the field who could also illuminate the complexity of the problem in the language of the ordinary folks. There was a consensus that not everyone could understand everything: that’s what we have experts for.
The world of online platforms has brought into play the algorithm that is self-determining about which information we see and which we don’t. This shuffled the cards once and for all. The algorithms that prefer to amplify your classmates and singers, have kept it from us that this game is played without jokers or aces. Experts have become irrelevant because they are not entertaining enough, and spreading their views does not earn anyone a penny. Instead of one expert with a high proportion of correct answers, algorithms offer us dozens of attention grabbers with a high proportion of wrong answers. And in this cocktail, the algorithm is incorporating Russian and Chinese useful idiots who are offering us the wrong answers on purpose.
The result? Confusion, chaos, anger, one bad decision follows another. Where the information war has sunk deep, populists have been elected who fit the “algorithm of bad but nice-looking answers” like a cog in a machine, making matters worse with their “affiliation to a deafening information scheme,” unfortunately with the powers vested in them. Worse, they boycott efforts to abandon this vicious circle of bad answers, half-truths, and tinkered facts. This happens precisely in a pandemic crisis when true information is worth gold: human lives and billions in the state budget.
As is already our good Czech custom, when the gentry doesn´t give a shit about the future of the country, it is time for self-preservation. So I’ll try to think out loud about what we can do. I would divide our strategy into three levels: preventive, defensive and offensive.
Prevent, defend, attack
I will start with what we have been talking about for some time and where we have more or less agreed that something needs to be done. Prevention. You can’t win a war with the prevention, especially at the moment we’ve already been attacked. But it is the long-term backbone of the population’s resilience against the infliction of aggression and epistemic chaos. It rests on two pillars: agreement on a true interpretation of reality and agreement on values. Both were taken from us by the aggressors of the information warfare, with heavy assistance from complicit social networks.
Much of what the state should have done is already being done by nonprofit organizations and volunteers. What would we do without them? They are the last crutch on which our crippled soul can lean now. They’re supplying a fallen state loaded with our taxes and doing it brilliantly for the few coins we send them. Media education for children and young people, fact-checking, monitoring of the disinformation scene, verifying hoaxes, education in basic concepts such as democracy, the constitution, elections, electoral law, forms of decision-making in a democracy, you can already find all this on the menu of non-profit organizations or as a socially beneficial activity of universities. It’s not nearly as broad as it might be if it were paid and executed by the state (which is why we pay for it), but God bless them for what they've done already.
Self-help has kicked in here, and its only weakness is its small marketing reach and lack of funding — far from everyone will know about these programs. The same goes for books on fake news, disinformation, and information warfare. As the author of two such publications myself, I know that they are gradually increasing in the book market. Again, the problem is reach — no one is investing in the advertising of these books, not everyone is reading books, and at a time when most of the population is receiving information from YouTube or TV in the form of audiovisual communication, it is just reaching out to more educated opinion-makers. Not to mention closed libraries in the pandemic.
Audiovisual perception is the key to the 21st century. I would applaud young influencers and YouTubers for wanting to get involved in information campaigns; if they talk to their young fans, they’ll do a great deal of important preventive work in the young population. Czech Youtuber Kovy has been doing this for several years and is doing it well. Personally, I’d like to see other influencers, the famous stand-up comedians, targeting a completely different kind of audience, in different age brackets. We lack YouTubers and podcasters for the elderly, who so far have been massively supplied by the Russian disinformation mill with various paramilitary and would-be foreign policy weirdos.
Every vote for democracy and reality counts. Supporting these activities should be our civic duty. And our companies should put it first in the social responsibility portfolio. We already know how business is done in Russian or Chinese-controlled territories. We really don’t want to get to this last station.
Time is everything
Then we have the defensive part. I’d split that into defences strategic and acute. By strategic defence, I mean the possibility of hitting these harmful disinformation actors by finally staking out the terrain with legislation that we lack like that famous salt over gold. This is a long-term measure where we play in two environments. Transnational (EU) — which is very effective but also very slow. And national, which is effective only in proportion to the strength of the nation-state (which is large in the US, almost zero in the Czech Republic), but provides the opportunity to react more quickly. And speed, as we will show, is one of the key factors for turning the balance of power between democracy and the new information totalitarianism.
In terms of how to legislate against information warriors in a faster timeframe, it pays to see how the information warfare actors are dealt with by the country that has taken the heaviest hit. The United States of America almost collapsed into civil war. For now, it looks as if the first line of (tragically delayed) defence will be through disciplining platforms whose power has gone over the head of the United States itself. For out of the sovereign territory of the new empires, namely Facebook, Google, Youtube and others, the most severe attack on the minds of ordinary people is taking place, and it is here that manipulative tactics enriched by dangerous behavioural knowledge are being disseminated in millions. It’s the social networks, search engines and messengers through which a lot of toxic material flows daily. These platforms were made beyond legal sanction in 1996 by US legislation allowing them to remain outside the category of “publisher, media outlet,” and by robust lobbying, they have remained within that regime until now. Since their algorithms create a perception of reality in our heads by what they show us and in how many times, there can be no question of their neutrality and their exclusion from liability.
But the content is just one of many levels of the problem. Ironically, the least dangerous. Then there is the fact that these companies, content providers, have become the largest information distributors, data owners and the richest companies in the world. Their dominant market position would no longer be seen by an accomplice or a blind man. They have the power to create content by how and to whom they distribute which information, and which they do not show. Creating a context is key to creating “views” and the information mix plays a major role in this.
The experimental guinea pigs
The final and altogether most dangerous factor that has escaped our notice is the fact that these companies are extracting, without our permission, huge amounts of psychological data from our behaviour on the network, from which they can also identify, through appropriate comparative analysis, the health, financial and psychological diagnoses of each of us. Our little dirty secrets and our great secrets, our integrity, are suddenly for sale without our knowledge. Worse, it is being psychologically experimented with without permission to further refine the algorithm of these distribution platforms. By analytically acquiring an intimate knowledge of each of us’ psychological, medical, or financial weaknesses, algorithms can tailor any kind of campaign for us. The goods in these campaigns can be both detergent and disinformation, as well as a satanic cult, all of which is just a “product” in whose popularity and display you invest money, time and invention.
With such wild terrain set in place, where the right of the strongest applies, and where the dissemination of ticklish or aggressive information (greater virality, greater earnings) is preferred, it is impossible to fight from an individual’s position. All that remains for us citizens accustomed to self-help is to organize ourselves so that legislators feel our aggressive demand for change. When each of us writes an angry e-mail to our MP, the change can be on the way: because there are no seats without voters. We still have the one thing MPs want: a ballot paper. Perhaps even they don’t know that their own brains are being targeted by a concerted psychological attack. (Could someone translate into Czech the book Mindfuck, by the Canadian data specialist Christopher Wylie, please?) Recent investigations into events around January 6, in the US Capitol show that psychological information operations also target soldiers, police officers, firefighters and other forces in the state.
My home-made 101 of information self-defence further offers the acute defence that rising amounts of toxic lies about Covid-19 are forcing us to do. It is this tiny virus that has shown us, in a relatively small period of time and with such force, that disinformation kills.
Each of us has seen it before. “Let´s protest against masks, don’t let them take away your grandchildren kisses, covid is just the flu, the real man isn’t afraid to go to the pub, the government pisses me off, I won’t listen to what doctors say, the vaccine will cripple you, a chip will be put in your nose, take colloidal silver and occasional pool chemistry, drink bleach, a healthy body can make it, a person has to die of something.” Overinflated strength, as well as justified frustration, denying and nonsense, lies and bullshit. Hard to untangle the ball. This mix, in the form of chain emails, images, videos, memes, provocateurs, and troll dialogues, is pouring into our information territory under enormous duress, with people having no idea that production is being stimulated. The acute defence against attacks on our emotions and impulses lies in the speed and capacity of the channel. In popular terms, whoever has the bigger cannon wins.
The people of Taiwan, for example, who are under the same massive disinformation pressure as we are under, in this case from China, have great experience of this. Taiwanese understood that the state could never respond to a complex and rapid information game of emotions, memetics, and the number of repetitions — so they engaged all residents in the unorthodox game. They went to the trouble of teaching people how to play memetic war. Use memes and gifs, make and distribute hashtags, bend disinformation narratives and send them back. And in the midst of all this, they’ve created a kind of the striking core of professionals who are both quick to analyze the data stream of harmful narratives and able to work with agile creative teams who, with brainstorming, can think up dozens of witty responses to aggressive Chinese graphics and videos. They use the same amplification techniques and platforms as the Chinese attacker to disseminate answers. To organize something like this is much closer to our Czech individual mentality than to undergo the thorny path of implementing serious crisis communication, such as that in Canada or the Nordic or Baltic states. This type of communication requires a functional state in which there is general trust and where highly educated and disciplined officials operate. Unfortunately, we do not get this in the Czech Republic, and therefore the Taiwanese guerilla described above is much closer to our position and mental model. It can eventually produce better results because of its elasticity and real-time response rate. Nothing is worse than wasted time and people memorizing a harmful narration. If you don’t give narratives time to take root through frequent repetitions, you win.
Grab them by the money
The last ingredient in the recipe for citizens Czech self-defence should be a kind of attack action. I was inspired by the above quote from Israel General Nadav Zafrir. Because the modern-day organization of the spread of disinformation and manipulative campaigns on foreign territory represents a complex biologically intertwined organism of individual communication points, it is necessary to understand what connects the various links of this biome. In my opinion, these are two things. Money and the need to belong.
The higher end of the set is the intellectual trust, where, in addition to people who know marketing, social networking algorithms, data work and data analysis, you can find people knowledgeable about behavioural psychology, history, sociology, graphics, journalism, as well as military and intelligence practices. You have to pay these professionals to devise strategy and dissemination technology.
The middle part of the disinformation machine is disinformation websites and content creators, where authors and narratives are cultivated and are financially self-sufficient thanks to advertising revenue and sponsorship of smaller channels. All the Russians or Chinese had to do was put them on the tracks and push.
Below is the lowest part, an amplification machine that involves both thousands of individuals and internet bots and technology in general. The thousands of individuals who voluntarily and free-for-all disseminate toxic narratives are made up of people whose desire is to be a valid part of our society and to do something good or stand out. To be praised and respected. Outstanding. To show skill and courage. A perfect name for this was invented by algorithm specialist Josef Holý (with whom we prepare the popular Czech podcast Canaries in the Net). He used the cyber-security term “DDoS attack at the truth,” a jam in our natural communication capabilities determined by confusing information.
The task of the offensive portion of popular self-defence should be to interrupt the self-financing abilities of these sites from advertising, and to lure thousands of their committed foot soldiers, into another, more socially useful activity. All Czech companies hold the key to the first task. All those they advertise. We already have a list of disinformation sites and channels, all we have to do is ask advertising agencies to definitively exclude them from the online advertising mix. The procedure will be advised by Czech companies by a non-profit (who else, right?) named NELEZ, which specializes in this.
Tell your mom you need her
For people who used to need to spread horrific warnings about other races, Muslims, refugees, the EU, the vaccine, dangerous NATO, rotten America, the fallen West, corrupt democracy, we need to prepare an environment where they can be both useful and valued as true defenders of the homeland, not as Russian useful idiots who cut the branch of their own state for free. This is a task for neighbourhood communities and families. A common cause is a lack of attention, respect, praise, help and social connections.
We, as people still unaffected by propaganda and psychological operations, should understand that the content these people shout to the world is not at all the issue here. Jehovah’s Day also does not send people to stand on the corner with their magazines to attract someone, but to experience the scorn of members of their own family, neighbours, and acquaintances. Nothing nails them so reliably to the core of a sect as our derision. Our job is to prepare our loved ones for an environment where they will experience acceptance and respect and open the door back to reality. Some may not come back, but there’s a chance.
Cry me a river: Dreaming about normality
If we were a normal state, we could talk about the possibility of applying a section on aiding terrorism to an organization of particularly blatant disinformation aimed at spreading the disease. If we were a normal state, we would probably be actively cooperating with the EU on joint sanctions against aggressive states, especially Russia, even going beyond the so-called Magnitsky Act, according to the government’s instructions. We could even use those sanctions ourselves, without the involvement of anyone else. We could immediately abolish the possibility of Russia and China participating in the corrupt tender for the construction of our nuclear power plants. Banish Russian diplomats and stop fawning over Chinese ones. Do not go through their vaccines when we know they will be delivered sooner by the EU anyway. But we are no longer in a normal state. Those who would never do that came to power.
Before the Velvet Revolution 1989, I had always been fascinated by the “Society for a Funny Contemporary”, whose members used to run down the Avenue of Political Prisoners in Prague (the context is more than the content), making Czech cops absolutely despair. They made them arrest people just because they were running. It was absurd, the law enforcement knew they are protesting, but they had to let them go again. Seen from afar, it was a tremendous prank that made the mockery and delegitimization of communists who usurped power. Once the worst part of the pandemic is over, it would be good to rebuild this society. Preferably before Czech parliamentary elections. A historian once told me that any attempt at totalitarianism ends in either blood or volleys of laughter. I’d prefer the latter.
Alexandra Alvarova is a columnist and author of information warfare books Industry of Lies (2017) and Feed The Demons (2020), devoted to communication, media theory and propaganda research, living permanently in Vancouver, Canada.