Information War is the Continuation of Politics by Other Memes: Information, Disinformation, and Social Media as Weapons

By: Jesse Miller
Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes

Excerpt: This article will focus on the Russian social media campaign that has been confirmed by multiple United States (US) intelligence agencies and highlighted in the Mueller report.  The article will analyze how Russia is using social media to generate and spread disinformation to distort facts while confusing and dividing the US government and society.  These attacks, including the 2016 presidential election, have led to a limited strategic paralysis in the US.  The US and democratic nations across the world must recognize this threat and develop new ways to deter it, defend against it, and ultimately defeat it.

The United States is under attack.

While the US government and the public debate the results of the Mueller report and its impacts on the Trump Administration, the US is missing the larger issue; the Russian government actively and deliberately attempted to influence the 2016 US presidential election.  In doing so, Russia purposefully sought out divisions within the US political and social systems, similar to their efforts during the UK’s BREXIT vote, and intentionally used social media to expand those divisions with the goal of driving the US political parties and social groups further apart, ultimately creating an environment incapable of compromise and effective governance.

The 2016 US presidential election and BREXIT are only a couple of examples of how the Russian government has (and currently is) driving the US and many of its allies to the point of limited strategic paralysis.  The two major parties of the US government must now contend with voters and politicians who are so divided that they are finding it almost impossible to debate, compromise, or pass meaningful legislation and recently suffered the longest government shutdown in US history. This limited effectiveness has made basic governance in the US a challenge, let alone the development of a bipartisan grand strategy to deal with rising global threats and great power competition.

Interestingly, Russia is not creating national paralysis while fighting in any of the classic warfighting domains.  They are not attacking by land, sea, air, space, or even solely by cyberspace; rather, they are attacking thru information, otherwise known as disinformation (or dezinformatsiya in Russian). This focus on influencing people and their thoughts is in what Dr. Jeff Reilly, and many others, refer to as attacking in the Human Domain.

Using Russian Dezinformatsiya in the Human Domain
The use of information warfare is nothing new to the Russian government, and especially for Russian President Vladimir Putin.  President Putin, a former Russian KGB Agent, and FSB Director, and the Russian government have vast experience in Information Warfare through programs such as Active Measures and Operation INFEKTION.  Active Measures was a dezinformatsiya campaign led by the Soviet Union’s KGB to defeat the West, as Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze explained, through the force of politics, rather than the politics of force.  Operation INFEKTION was an Active Measures Operation during the 1980s intended to spread dezinformatsiya that the US Government had created the HIV/AIDs virus to weaken its credibility and position in the international system.

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Active Measures chronicles Russia’s plot to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Today, the Russian government, as demonstrated in the Gerasimov Doctrine, views information as a weapon to be used to confuse and divide adversaries in order to break down their governments and societies until they can no longer work together and exist in a state of permanent unrest. Democracies, meanwhile, with their focus on truth, transparency, and free speech are quickly finding themselves at a disadvantage as the internet, and social media have exposed the minds of their citizens and democratic leaders to an overwhelming and often uncensored wealth of information riddled with lies, Fake News, and Russian dezinformatsiya.

Russian Dezinformatsiya and the 2016 US Presidential Campaign
Leading into the 2016 US Presidential Election, according to numerous US intelligence agencies and independent cyber-defense firms, the Russian government launched an aggressive dezinformatsiya campaign via social media to influence the US presidential election.  Ben Nimmo, a British defense and international security analyst, studied Russia’s information warfare doctrine, and described the strategy as the “4-Ds”:  dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the main issue, and dismay the audience.  LikeWar authors P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking later added a fifth “D”: Divide.  There are numerous examples of Russia’s attempts to dismiss, distort, distract, dismay, and divide the American people, and many of them have effects that will lead far into the future.

Hundreds of Russians went to work every day at organizations like Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) in the years leading up to the 2016 elections. According to documents leaked in 2014, during an average twelve-hour day, these Russian sockpuppets (an online identity used for purposes of deception) created social media accounts and posted on news articles 50 times a day.  Their standards required, “each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day…On Twitter, they might be expected to manage ten accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.”

According to Singer and Brooking, these Russian sockpuppets tended to take one of three forms: an organizer of a trusted group, a trusted news source, or a seemingly trustworthy person. A Russian Twitter account, @Ten_GOP called itself the “unofficial Twitter account of Tennessee Republicans” and had 136,000 followers, or ten times the followers of the actual Tennessee Republican Party.  Its 3,107 tweets were retweeted 1,213,506 times, including retweets by key members of political campaigns.  Blacktivist, a popular group promoting the Black Lives Matter movement had its Facebook posts shared 103.8 million times before Facebook shut down the account after discovering its Russian origin.  According to the Mueller report, “at the time they were deactivated by Facebook in mid-2017, the IRA’s ‘United Muslims of America’ Facebook group had over 300,000 followers, the ‘Don’t Shoot Us’ Facebook group had over 250,000 followers, the ‘Being Patriotic’ Facebook group had over 200,000 followers, and the ‘Secured Borders’ Facebook group had over 130,000 followers.”  These online groups were used to incite divisions among the US population, including organizing and supporting protests and counter-protests within the US, including the infamous Charlottesville rally where a man deliberately drove his vehicle into a group of peaceful protestors and killed a young woman.

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Attacking through information, or disinformation (dezinformatsiya in Russian).

Russian sockpuppets also created accounts to resemble trusted news sources and used them to disseminate dezinformatsiya as Fake News.  While the term Fake News has been misconstrued and has become increasingly used to dismiss factual news that runs contrary to one’s beliefs, it’s important to emphasize that these accounts were used to disseminate factually inaccurate stories and conspiracy theories.  Another Russian account, @teapartynews, pushed anti-immigrant and pro-Trump messages to is 22,000 followers.  The popular Fake News story, #Pizzagate, reported a conspiracy theory that arose in the final days of the 2016 election that claimed that Hillary Clinton and her aides were involved in satanic worship and underage sex trafficking at a DC-area pizza parlor.  The false story garnered 1.4 million mentions on Twitter alone, and when Trump voters were polled after the election, almost half of them “affirmed their belief that the Clinton campaign had participated in pedophilia, human trafficking, and satanic ritual abuse.”

The third Russian tactic was to appear as a seemingly trustworthy person.  Alan Baskayev, a former employee of the IRA, described it as “exhausting” to manage so many identities.  “First you had to be a redneck from Kentucky, then you had to be some white guy from Minnesota who worked all his life, paid taxes and now lives in poverty; and in 15 minutes you have to write something in the slang of [African] Americans from New York.”  It is difficult to adequately understand the impact that these fake accounts had on our society, or appreciate their potential danger.  In addition to influencing individuals that interacted with these fake accounts, many of these accounts rose to prominence and had had even larger impacts.  The IRA created @Jenn_Abrams to resemble an American teenager.  “Her” media posts were quoted in articles in over 30 mainstream media outlets including AP, BBC News, CNN, France24, Fox News, Times of India, USA Today, and the Washington Post, giving the IRA a global audience for their dezinformatsiya.

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Russian social media efforts often supported each other to build success. Here, one Russian sockpuppet account on Twitter promotes another Russian sockpuppet account.

The US and other democratic nations cannot afford to ignore the impacts and implications of this dezinformatsiya campaign.  Three years after the wake of the 2016 elections, the political divide is still fresh and has left the US government in a limited strategic paralysis, effectively degrading the world’s largest superpower without firing a shot. Further complicating the threat, the US government is finding itself unable to debate or respond to these Russian attacks effectively.  While Congress continues to push to increase sanctions against Russia as retribution for the election meddling, unanimous action has not been embraced enthusiastically by all members of Congress, or even universally across all branches of the US government.  Without a credible threat to deter Russia’s dezinformatsiya campaign, Russia is likely only to be encouraged, and its success will only further encourage other adversary nations.

Democratic leaders must take this threat to our system of government seriously.  As artificial intelligence technology continues to develop, it is becoming easier and less expensive to create and disseminate Fake News via social media.  Moreover, new capabilities such as Deep Fakes will soon make it possible for adversary sockpuppets to make videos of anyone saying anything.  It will become increasingly difficult to distinguish truth from reality.  The US and its allies need to appreciate the importance of dezinformatsiya and the human domain and understand how their adversaries are using it.  The US can learn from allied nations that are much closer to Russia geographically such as Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine, and who are commonly exposed to and accustomed to dealing with Russian dezinformatsiya.

A Way Ahead
While the first step is recognizing the threat, we must also acknowledge it.  Universally acknowledging this threat has been difficult as some branches of the government struggle with recognizing its impact on the US electoral process.  However, failing to acknowledge the threat will only allow adversaries to continue to develop their tactics while keeping the US population largely ignorant of their influences.  The US government and military leadership must also debate and develop effective response options to this kind of “grey-zone” or “hybrid warfare” to effectively deter them in the future.  As noted by Sean McFate, a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, in The New Rules of War, the US notion of Westphalian warfare is no longer adequate as adversaries continue to take advantage of tactics short of war.

Rather than relying on notions of “war” and “peace,” the US and its allies must learn to adapt to more modern concepts of durable disorder and constant conflict while accepting that irregular warfare is becoming a misnomer, as it becomes the new normal.  With its robust military capabilities, powerful economy, unsurpassed worldwide influence, advantageous geography, prosperous international relationships, and healthy demographics, the US is very well suited to take advantage of the full range of military operations integrated via Multi-Domain Operations as part of a coordinated Whole-of-Government Approach.  The US has a plethora of response options across all of its instruments of power, which should be coordinated to exploit its various adversaries’ vulnerabilities and capitalize on the US’ many strengths.

Furthermore, the US government needs to introduce regulations regarding content on social media platforms.  While Americans tend to view regulation, especially of the internet and information, as inherently contrary to American values, they cannot allow foreign governments the ability to use social media to spread division and confusion in the political process. Much like the US does not allow foreign governments to buy ads in other media to spread disinformation, it should also not allow them to do it via social media.

Additionally, social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Google, while not solely US companies, as they now have a global commercial audience, must also regulate this kind of disinformation.  While the Russian dezinformatsiya campaign has alerted many social media companies to this new threat, and many of them are taking corrective actions, they must be assertive, proactive, and diligent.  With their power of influence, they have a responsibility to their customers to prevent this kind of government attack.  Similar to the way they regulate crimes such as child pornography or threats of violence, these companies should prevent foreign governments from creating and spreading false information and influence operations.

Finally, Americans and global citizens have a responsibility to think critically about the information that they are exposed to every day.  As a favorite professor of mine often says, “paper does not refuse ink,” and the advent of the internet and social media has lowered the bar for the cost of creating and spreading disinformation while drastically increasing its reach.  Reviewing and applying the Intellectual Standards established by the Foundation for Critical Thinking via their Elements of Reasoning is a great place to start.  By continuing to apply these standards via the foundation’s Elements of Reasoning, we can further develop our Intellectual Traits and have more thoughtful and developed conversations while expanding our views and beliefs outside of our echo chambers through education.  In doing so, we can use what Singer and Brooking refer to as “Lateral Thinking.”

Individuals should seek information from multiple credible sources and avoid getting stuck in echo chambers that only relay information from a specific point of view or paradigm.  If you commonly get your news from MSNBC, trying watching or reading CNN, Fox News, AP, and the BBC as well.  Furthermore, critical and lateral thinking should be integrated into the US education system to help inoculate or harden our citizens against this kind of information warfare at an earlier age, similar to the Finnish education system.

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Intellectual Standards and Intellectual Traits (The Foundation of Critical Reasoning)

These practices may be uncomfortable at first, as the exposure to new ideas or views forces individuals to struggle with cognitive dissonance and biases, but that exposure and using the Elements of Reasoning will help them gain a fuller understanding of the situation.  Moreover, while applying the Elements of Reasoning, they should be critical of the sources of their information. Every author has a bias and a point that they are trying to make.  If individuals are getting their news from social media, they should absolutely doubt its credibility.

Ultimately, the average US citizen must understand that information is a weapon, disinformation is a threat, and US leaders, both political and military, must start thinking of the human domain as a warfighting domain when we consider global conflicts.

Jesse Miller is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. Email: JM6237918  

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government.

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