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The Information War, Running Cover for a Physical One

This isn't simple propaganda. It's central to the conflict. Here's what you can do about it.

Created March 4, 2022 /
Last edited -

Mario Vasilescu

CEO/Co-Founder of Readocracy

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“World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.” - Marshall McLuhan (1970)

What we are witnessing in the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an information war that enabled, and now is running cover for, a physical one. And unlike the physical one, we are all targets and fighters in the information war.

We have a responsibility to equip ourselves and fight back. Reading the following is your chance to do so. We did the research for you. You can skim it in 5 minutes. You can’t protect yourself if you don’t know what you’re up against.

As the NATO Review pointed out, “a proper defense requires at the very least an awareness that a cognitive warfare campaign is underway. It requires the ability to observe and orient.”

Below you’ll find definitions, evidence, solutions, and reliable sources.

“The human mind becomes the battlefield”

Psychological warfare: any action which is practiced mainly by psychological methods with the aim of evoking a planned psychological reaction in other people.

“In cognitive warfare, the human mind becomes the battlefield. The aim is to change not only what people think, but how they think and act. In its extreme form, it has the potential to fracture and fragment an entire society, so that it no longer has the collective will to resist an adversary’s intentions. An opponent could conceivably subdue a society without resorting to outright force or coercion.”

“… using internet tools for espionage and as fuel for disinformation campaigns is a new form of “hybrid warfare.” Their idea is that the lines are blurring between the traditional kinetic warfare of bombs, missiles and guns, and the unconventional, stealthy warfare long practiced against foreigners’ “hearts and minds” by intelligence and special forces capabilities.”

“The brain will be the battlefield of the 21st century
[...]
Humans are the contested domain
[...]
future conflicts will likely occur amongst the people digitally first and physically thereafter in proximity to hubs of political and economic power.”

“It might be people chatting in the Telegram or WhatsApp groups, and they are not public, someone in these groups can persuade them to hate each other, to hate because of a different race, different language they use, different color of skin or different religion — and to persuade them to kill each other,"
[...]
"One day, you can wake up in the morning and look through a window and see how people with machine guns are killing each other."
[...]
"Remember that someone still pays for even for free content, and the free cheese might be only in the mousetrap.”

The goal: divide to conquer

Russia’s approach isn’t to clearly convince anyone. It’s to divide, and in this way, conquer. This includes trying to sow doubt, division, and internal strife in NATO countries.

In the United States:

“The Kremlin isn’t ideological. Its outlets have agitated for and against the Black Lives Matter movement, for and against vaccinations, and boosted Bernie Sanders when he seemed to be splitting the Democratic Party. The Russian goal is simply to encourage any force that can add stress to U.S. politics and society.”

“The campaigns exploit existing political fault lines like race and regionalism to increase polarization and disaffection with the political system. The complete lack of a coherent message across these campaigns is jarring until one realizes that the goal of the campaigns is not necessarily to convince anyone of anything, but rather to generate noise.”

In other NATO countries:

“Psychological warfare … is also taught as a military science in the journalism faculties of major educational institutions such as Moscow State University. The purported GRU textbook that the courses are modeled on even advises different approaches to waging psychological warfare on different NATO members.
[...]
[For example] So, the Germans have an “abstract-logical” way of thinking, but "prefer clearly reasoned facts and calculations,” the textbook says. "The French and Americans love visuals. The Germans also love visuals, but only those which have double meanings. While the French prefer catchy ideas, emotional expressions and loud words."

Now, during the Ukraine conflict, the focus is ensuring their narrative is the dominant one, abroad, but especially at home in Russia.

"Orwellian" doesn't begin to describe the falsehoods. Putin announced he was sending "peacekeepers," as he ordered his military machine to move into Ukrainian territory. His soldiers went into Ukraine to supposedly "de-Nazify" -- smearing the Nazi label on a country that is a democracy, though a flawed one, whose president happens to be Jewish. Putin claimed Moscow needed to move in to defend Ukraine's Russian speakers from a nonexistent "genocide" by Ukrainians (a tactic made infamous of World War II).

Analysis from Schafer's team found that since November last year, Russian propagandists and news sites have claimed that: Ukraine is a failed state; Ukrainian politicians are neo-Nazis; US and NATO are to blame for the increasing likelihood of war and that -- despite amassing more than 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine's borders -- Russia is not the aggressor.

Videos of Russia’s military losses are explained away as fakes; the destruction its forces are inflicting on cities like Kharkiv, in the east, as having been committed by Ukrainians. “It is hard for those who don’t know the details to make out what is happening,” a reassuring voice from Russia’s state-run Channel One told its audience on February 27th. It is far better to use information from official sources, otherwise viewers risk being told lies, it said. “Those who spread such lies want to hold the world in their hands and people in fear.”

It’s highly effective

To fully appreciate the scope of this style of warfare, you need only look at how effectively it has been used to crumble American society into an increasingly divided, self-hating mass.

2015:

“...the US Intelligence community assesses with “high confidence” (notwithstanding President Trump’s skepticism) that Russia’s intelligence (GRU) gained access to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer networks in July 2015, and maintained it until at least June 2016. By May, Russia’s Intelligence had exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC. Someone under the name of “Guccifer 2.0” subsequently leaked to Wikileaks.com and DCLeaks.com the material stolen from the DNC. The scandal that followed was exploited by a massive PsyOps to discredit Hillary Clinton and, more importantly, to erode trust in US institutions.”

2020:

“Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University say that nearly half of all accounts tweeting "reopen America" [during the pandemic] are likely bots. The sock puppet accounts are flooding Twitter at two times the level seen in previous domestic and geopolitical events. Some of the bot accounts are also promoting conspiracy theories of the coronavirus being linked to 5G technology, an idea that has been repeatedly debunked. Coordinated bot activity on Twitter is often a means with which to advance a political agenda and increase polarization between groups.

And it's effective because it only requires a small proportion of the population to be roped in:

“Persuasion doesn’t need to influence the majority of the public to be effective. It’s enough to convince just one per cent of a population to destabilise a democracy pretty effectively with protests, rioting and a collapse in institutional trust. So the question that really needs asking is: how hard is it to radicalise one per cent of the public with modern, weaponised forms of persuasion?”

From pushing BLM tensions even further, to the polarization that led to the Capitol Riot, Russia’s tactics have been high leverage. For context, numbers suggest that the Freedom Convoy in Canada was supported by under 0.3% of Canadians — and, yes, bot activity around it was heavy and enabled it to spread.

Worst of all, it compounds.

The more doubt it sows, the more effective it becomes, the less resistance it encounters.

“The current information battle is playing out in a new era, where technology has allowed conspiracy theories to spread faster and wider than anytime before. At the same time, trust in government has further eroded. And that has meant many efforts to get ahead of Russian information operations are met with deep skepticism.”

All on a backdrop of an internet environment which incentivizes agitation and misinformation for attention and profit, helping this content along.

All while it is virtually impossible to keep up with:

"All we have on our side is the truth," said Jankowicz. "Russia is willing to create troll accounts and other false amplifiers, and play with the facts, and manipulate images." "It is not fighting fire with fire in that regard," she explained. "We're always going to be a little bit less equipped to deal with this stuff."

A study by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, commissioned by the Trump administration, “warned that a global information war launched by Putin in 2014 could escalate into a display of Russian power in Eastern Europe.” It saw Russia’s influence on Brexit as ‘First Step’ In a Russian ‘Information Blitzkrieg’ on the West.

The scale is massive

A former KGB (Soviet era Russian secret service) agent outlined that approximately 85% of the KGB’s work was focused on this area, rather than the espionage work many might guess.

In 2014, leading up to and during the annexation of Crimea, the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence service, successor to KGB) targeted “more than 30 Ukrainian groups and social media platforms, as well as 25 “leading, English-language” publications. The GRU also used paid ads on Facebook to increase the groups’ popularity, according to the report. Together, the groups received nearly 200,000 views on Facebook on Feb. 27 alone, the report said.”

“The most fake tweets in a day, or on a single topic, by Russian disinformation agency Internet Research Agency (IRA). followed shooting down of the Malaysian MH17 airliner. Russia took extensive measures and gave many narratives to hide its involvement. In three days after the crash, the Russian Internet Research Agency posted 111,486 tweets from fake accounts.

In 2018, Twitter suspended over 1 million accounts in a single day to stem the flow of misinformation, and over 70 million accounts in two months. For context, Twitter had 336 million monthly active users at that time. So the equivalent of over 20% of the platform. While this surely wasn’t all KGB activity, it gives you a sense of the available scope, given Russia is considered the world leader in information warfare.

Just this past week, “The SSU cyber specialists uncovered and dismantled two [pro-Russian] bot farms in Lviv with a total capacity of 18,000 fake accounts.”

And it’s not simple activity either. It’s many-layered. For example, via Daniel Dale :

  1. Trolls make fake "CNN" accounts to tweet weird stuff
  2. Anonymous account mocks CNN over the fake troll stuff CNN didn't actually tweet
  3. Russian official amplifies the fake troll stuff as evidence of "MSM #fakenews"

And paid troll teams will engage in fake back and forths to seem legitimate.

“According to a former paid Russian Internet troll, the trolls are on duty 24 hours a day, in 12-hour shifts, and each has a daily quota of 135 posted comments of at least 200 characters.
[...]
We did it by dividing into teams of three. One of us would be the "villain," the person who disagrees with the forum and criticizes the authorities, in order to bring a feeling of authenticity to what we're doing. The other two enter into a debate with him -- "No, you're not right; everything here is totally correct." One of them should provide some kind of graphic or image that fits in the context, and the other has to post a link to some content that supports his argument.
[...]
There are keywords, tags, that are needed for search engines. We're given five keywords -- for example, "Shoigu," "defense minister," "Russian army." All three of us have to make sure these keywords appear all over the place in our comments. Yes, there are special people working on Facebook. There are about 40 rooms with about 20 people sitting in each, and each person has their assignments. They write and write all day.”

While creating fake institutional content to back it all up:

“... and it leverages outlets that masquerade as news sites or research institutions to spread these false and misleading narratives.”

How to fight back: individually

1] To protect your mind, learn how to spot the manipulation

“The best protection against threats to the cognitive dimension of cyberspace depends on users’ own actions and knowledge. Objectively educated, rational citizens should serve as the foundation of a strong democratic society. But that defense fails if people don’t have the skills – or worse, don’t use them – to think critically about what they’re seeing and examine claims of fact before accepting them as true.”

Below are a set of articles that each help equip you extremely well in vetting information, i.e. protecting yourself and others:

2] Get your info from trusted sources

3] When you’re sure of it, spread the truth. This is essential to the fight.

“The most serious battle is happening in Ukraine, but for those not feeling the violence there is a war for hearts and minds in public opinion. In the social media age, we are doing the fighting.
[...]
This is not to undersell the real violence and tragedy in Ukraine. It’s to point out that the war of information exists alongside that violence in ways that embolden leadership or can make us war weary. And that public sentiment has real effect on how we act as a global community.”

“One of Ukraine’s most potent weapons: the power of information. To win this conflict, Ukraine and its supporters must seize and control the narrative of war. Doing so will delegitimize the Russian invasion and undermine Russia’s will to fight.”
[...]
War is no longer solely won and lost on the battlefield. They who control the narrative of war are the true victors. No modern politician understands this better than Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.
[...]
Ukraine and those who support it must launch a truth offensive to win the narrative of war Ukraine must publicize every illegal act of Russian aggression and label it as such. They must document every human rights violation and humanitarian catastrophe. They must act as if they are gathering evidence for an investigation before the International Criminal Court, and delivering an opening statement for a trial before the world. And they must spread the truth in the face of Putin’s lies, until the true story is the only story.
[...]
Every person who dissents, and every soldier who defects, wounds a leader who desperately wants to be loved by his people and respected by the world.

It seems, so far, Ukraine is winning the Information War. Why? In a nutshell, because of its freedom from internal oppression. Russia’s totalitarian control impedes itself. With the world behind it, the truth is free.

It’s also important to keeping Russia and other powers accountable. The sheer scale of lying that Russia is projecting, which often was tucked away in numerous narratives, is now being exposed in a massive, concentrated way.

“It could also make it more challenging when Russia has to reckon for its actions. ‘The internet does not forget. The evidence now being recorded of air strikes, firefights and artillery bombardments will become the battlefields for future information conflict’”

4] Learn the context with these backgrounder resources

To best understand the nuances and use critical thinking, it helps to have proper context. The below lists help get you caught up:

How to fight back: collectively

1] Stop accepting the lack of friction (including blanket anonymity) on social media platforms. It’s mortgaging our reality for extra engagement.

It’s the single most controllable and easily addressed factor: being an anonymous troll, or sharing misinformation impulsively, shouldn’t be so totally effortless or consequence-free.

For example:

“[Facebook and Twitter] make their money from users’ activity on their sites – so they are conflicted, trying to stifle misleading content while also boosting users’ involvement.”

The ease with which these videos can be created is an issue. “I think that their infrastructure — the literal design of the platform — is part of the problem. It is amplifying fear and misinformation,” Richards said. “TikTok’s infrastructure is structurally incompatible with the moment.”

Cyberspace allows a large degree of anonymity, behind which it is easy to automate propaganda

The rapid pace of messaging and news releases, and the perceived need to quickly react to them, encourages “thinking fast” (reflexively and emotionally) as opposed to “thinking slow” (rationally and judiciously). Even established and reputable news outlets now post emotional headlines to encourage viral diffusion of their news articles.
[...]
People spend less time reading their content, even as they increase the frequency in sharing them. Social messaging systems are optimised to distribute short snippets that often omit important context and nuance. This can facilitate the spread of both intentionally and unintentionally misinterpreted information or slanted narratives. The brevity of social media posts, in combination with striking visual images, may prevent readers from understanding others’ motives and values.

2] Ask your government representatives what is being done to support the fight, including education

E.g.:

Subjected to repeated disinformation campaigns, the tiny Baltic country of Estonia sees media literacy education as part of its digital-first culture and national security. But the country has done something else in its attempt to protect itself from digital aggression – the tiny Baltic country is using media literacy education to help its citizens spot and be wary of disinformation.Since 2010 Estonian public schools – from kindergarten through to high school – teach media literacy to their pupils. Students in 10th grade also take a mandatory 35-hour "media and influence" course. Media literacy education is now accepted "as important as maths or writing or reading", says Siim Kumpas, former strategic communication adviser to Estonia's government.

Made it this far? Thanks for doing your part.

Information can be precious, or it can be poison; it can be tool, or weapon. How we educate ourselves will decide if we can tell the difference when we desperately need to.

To further support the people of Ukraine, you can donate directly via the organizations listed here.

Subscribe to follow along as we rethink the attention economy and our relationship with information

Mario Vasilescu

CEO/Co-Founder of Readocracy

I am deeply passionate about making attention online count for knowledge instead of only advertising. So that our time online can be optimized and rewarded for consumption that is mindful instead of mindless. To unlock the true economic value of our attention online, for a healthier internet and a smarter society.

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