He’d be gone after a few months, our European grandmothers said when there was no denying the mounting Hitler madness sweeping Europe. It was too late, the time to do something was about five years before that. Even after that, people consoled themselves that it wasn’t really a war, just a bit of political haggling, Hitler would soon tire for sure, he ain’t that bad . . . thousands of excuses to ease our failure, our ignorance and our fear of confronting the aggressor in time.
A familiar story? Sure. Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
When, in 1996, the Chief of Staff Samsonov’s reflections (on the need to think of war as a method of destroying strategic channels of communication and the moral spirit of the population) first entered Russian doctrinal military documents, the West was just getting drunk on the raucous Russian billions that, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, began to pour in London and Manhattan as if from heaven. It took less than twenty years for this dirty money to unravel the political processes in NATO countries to the extent that it paved the way for a new type of private war in which no one is killed. I mean, until 2020. Then Covid-19 came along.
The surprisingly deadly game
The information war I’m talking about has been with us for some time, and the “blunting of the moral spirit of the population” has also not happened for the past year. As long as it did so by stupid propaganda sites read by a few lunatics, we all laughed. Also, entertainment fake-news sites from Montenegro focused on clickbait earnings elicited a condescending smile. But by then, the age of Facebook had arrived, and information analysts’ upper lips had begun to stiffen. The Panama files show that in 2011, Russian VTB bank funded a $191m investment in Twitter. About the same time, Russian Gazprom Investholding through oligarch Yuri Millner financed an opaque offshore company, which in turn funded a vehicle that held $1bn-worth of Facebook shares. Facebook has become the world’s largest mass media and, with Google and its Youtube network, the world’s dominant information distributor.
While the West saw entertainment and easy money, the Russians saw a weapon. And with them, other authoritarian regimes. Their inability to overcome our civilizational circle economically and technologically, and their obsession with their own power, led them to focus utterly on the “soft factors” of war — information, algorithms, psychological operations, active measures, and more. And while the West still roared with enthusiasm for Russia’s billions in the banking system, the Russians, pioneers of information warfare, joined forces first with the Mafia, then with the oligarchs, then with Western billionaires and hedge funds, and finally with China and its infinite money.
So here we are, in 2021. We stand on the verge of pandemic bankruptcy. We, the propaganda guinea pigs, sick with Covid, with elected politicians whose debts are credited by the Bank of China or Deutsche. We were fed virtual reality on social media where the shouter’s opinion is more than that of an immunologist. Nations in darkness. The game of “crippling the moral spirit of the population” cost us bigly. Now also human lives.
A broken society
We already know there’s something wrong with our information space. Each of us already has someone with whom it is not advisable to enter into discussions on a sensitive topic. Who acts like a sore, wild lunatic. We already know we’re under attack. That people are dying of misinformation. But we keep consoling ourselves that perhaps this time it was the just old ones, just the fat ones, that no one in the family yet . . .
Surprisingly, the danger materialized in the impossibility of convincing a part of the eroded population (the moral spirit, remember?) of the need for cohesion and to help others. Fear of needles, distrust of the system, distrust of doctors, hatred of “the Blue other,” unwillingness to help anyone other than yourself, trust in fortune-tellers and esoteric gurus, those thousands of tiny communication motives have created a massive stream of conspiracy theories that is dragging us backwards into the abyss.
But it is the realization that if we do not stop the flow of disinformation, we will have to declare bankruptcy that leads us to think hard about defence. We have long since missed the possibility of both prevention and strategic communication. All that remains is the steps we tried to avoid.
Layers of crisis
The crisis of governance is at its highest level. Not only the current, populist ones but especially the governments that preceded them, bear the lion’s share of the blame. Shortsightedness, turning a blind eye to the influence of Russian mafias and dirty money, the willingness to involve not-so-transparent sources in political financing, benevolence to the benefit of the mobsters who then purchased apartments at Trump Tower, happened all in the days when we still had time.
Instead, we stood idly by as the political machines focused on creating an enemy as the main effective means of a political campaign. None of the previous governments saw a division of society as a threat. The political seniors on the benches, who refused to acknowledge the need to adapt politics to the rocketing advent of information technology, preferred to flatter to the older generation nostalgia.
Beneath the crisis of governance lie three other levels: a crisis of trust, a crisis of communication, and, with the advent of social networks, an epistemological crisis. I pause at the last one, for here appears, in addition to a description of the destruction, a hint of a future solution.
An epistemological crisis is caused by a change in the distribution of information brought by the social media business model. One of its hallmarks is the conversion from media and state institutions to a complicated ecosystem of social networks where an algorithm acts as a distribution authority.
The algorithm wants to make as much money as possible for shareholders. Therefore, it does not include in the distribution to people the information they need, which may save their life, liberty or property, but exclusively the information they LIKE. The truth here is not worth a broken penny. Facebook came to this world to make money for its shareholders. He doesn’t give a damn about our democracy.
Say hello to doomsday
This basic setup of the new distribution of information is also the source of the lethal effect of the infodemic. People in bubbles informed by “liking” have no chance of finding out the truth of the information because there is no scale or metric. They are therefore very easily “hunted” by propaganda masters, who, in addition to flattery and persuasion, invoke their “freedom of expression,” “common sense,” and “exceptionality”, three synonyms for manipulation in the disinformation newspeak.
This epistemic crisis has three big drivers: non-democratic regimes and their oligarchs, Big Data business, and spontaneous human short-circuit reactions and heuristics. Our adversaries have learned to analyze and change social media environments to alter our perceptions of reality by targeting individual social groups with brainwash, creating chaos and rage. Their soldiers in this invisible war are oligarchs, the offspring of mobsters who buy media and services for them. Big business, including Facebook and Google itself, has created a new communication model for this planet in which the rules of the advertising market are governed by social network owners. Whoever doesn’t adapt has to get out. And the oligarchs know the game.
With undemocratic regimes and mafias (a link that goes hand in hand), the “expose them” strategy applied by Americans during the Cold War will no longer help us. It’s too late. Russia and China prefer efficiency to caution, and given the high effect of their attacks, they don’t care if someone points the finger at them. The state of confusion in the thinking process is so high in a population that all you have to do is bring three or five contradictory explanations into the information space, and no one will care anymore.
We are left with the strategy of “cutting off the head of Medusa,” that is, wounding the chief organizers in a financially sensitive place and leaving them to bleed to death. I’m serious. Far from that, so far, is the famous Magnitsky Act, which merely does not allow oligarchs to invest or deposit money, but otherwise does not mortally damage them. Given the acuteness of our crisis, the Magnitsky Act is now ineffectively mild. We need to hit much harder. It is a war for the Russians and for China. We act like obliviated idiots.
The light at the end of the tunnel
First and foremost, new types of legislation need to be chosen to regulate social networks and their responsibility for the economic damage and lives lost through their platforms or adverts. Here I am thinking, for example, of the alternative nutritional supplement industry, which maintains and enlarges the pool of vaccine refusers as part of its advertising plan. Last year alone, these manufacturers invested $1.5 billion in advertising activities. America’s worst propaganda junk hole, the Infowars channel, was funded by manufacturers of nutritional supplements and herbs. But advertisers more often support disinformation channels unwittingly, even the big ones. They often wonder where the power of these channels to destroy their brand comes from when they are alone among the damaged.
I find it totally unacceptable that the governments of the world should have to auction off communication of scientific knowledge aimed at saving human lives, as opposed to an advertising offer from herbal pill manufacturers. How far do we let this go? Like Sotheby’s, Facebook will decide whose is more right?
Where is democracy when the dissemination of information in online groups through trolls, Twitterbots and artificial intelligence can only be paid for by wealthy political donors? Is the right to free speech also the right to be amplified? The questions we should have asked ourselves not in the aftermath, but before.
The constitution is not based on an imperative: data and money. A company cannot possess the ability to decide political processes by moderating people’s perceptions. We do not pay our taxes to Google or Facebook, and we do not elect their managers. Google and Facebook will not provide us with fair justice, highways and defence. The fair, straight communication model has to be embraced as a state responsibility.
This, by its nature, could not have ended well, even if no Russians were waging an information war against us and no disinformation operations were being paid for. And they do it, as we can see from modern data analysis (by analytics company Semantic Visions for example).
If we fail to return the rules of the information distribution game to the hands of the state and the quality media, which are not owned by pro-Russian and pro-Chinese oligarchs, then we will be quietly watching the progression of imitated democracy. Politicians will only play their propaganda theatre to embrace foreign interests. And woe betide us if we don’t elect them. What happened in the U.S. Capitol already has its new place in the FBI lexicon. The word is stochastic terror.
It’s time to act.