One of the aspects of war in the future that The Economist newspaper predicted with some confidence was that disinformation would be an important element and, in fact, I dealt with some of that, just a few days ago, in Future wars (4).
In an article headlined “My truth against yours: Waging war with disinformation ~ The power of fake news and undue influence,” that newspaper takes a look at disinformation warfare. “There is nothing new,” the authors say, “about either fake news or Russian disinformation campaigns. Back in 1983, at the height of the cold war, an extraordinary story appeared in a little-known pro-Soviet newspaper called the Patriot. It claimed to have evidence that the Pentagon had deliberately created AIDS as a biological weapon and was ready to export the virus to other countries, mainly in the developing world, as a way of gaining control over them. Within a few years the story had reappeared in mainstream publications in more than 50 countries … [and] … In February last year, in the wake of revelations about Russia’s interference in America’s presidential election but before the full extent of its activities on Facebook, Twitter and Google had become known, the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, announced that he had created units within the army to wage an information war: “Essentially the information conflict is a component of general conflict. Deriving from that, Russia has made an effort to form structures that are engaged in this matter.” He added that these were far more effective than anything Russia had used before for “counter-propaganda” purposes. A week earlier, General Petr Pavel, the Czech head of NATO’s military committee, had revealed that a false report of a rape by German soldiers in Lithuania had been concocted by Russia.“
The use of media as a way to spread disinformation ~ the party line or, as the old Russian community called it, the “general line” ~ was a bit more difficult in the 1920s and up until the 1990s. Western media knew and reported that Pravda and Izvestia were state owned, state run propaganda outlets and rarely reprinted anything from them that helped the Russians spread the communist party’s general line. Instead the “general line” had to be spread by somewhat clandestine means, through various, somewhat innocent (at least naive) dupes and fellow travellers in America, Britain, Canada, Denmark and so on.
But The Economist reports, “The internet and social media are creating entirely new opportunities for influence operations (IO) and the mass manipulation of opinion. Those technologies allow IO accurately to target those people likely to be most susceptible to their message, taking advantage of the “echo-chamber” effect of platforms such as Facebook, where users see only news and opinions that confirm their prejudices … [and] … Facebook now estimates that during and after the American election in 2016 a Russian-linked troll farm called the Internet Research Agency was responsible for at least 120 fake pages and 80,000 posts that were directly received by 29m Americans. Through sharing and liking, the number multiplied to nearly 150m, about two-thirds of the potential electorate. The ads aimed to exploit America’s culture wars. Similar IO have been launched in Europe, where Russia attempts to bolster support for populist movements that oppose liberal social norms.” This tactic of using the growing preference for “conformation bias” in news reading is exacerbated by and/or perhaps itself exacerbates the growing tendency towards adopting or enunciating extreme positions inn Western politics.
And, the article explains, “It is not just Russia that conducts IO against other countries. Jihadist extremists and hacker groups employed by rogue states or criminal networks pose similar if lesser threats. And although the big social-media companies now claim to be working on solutions, including better and quicker attribution of messages, Russian IO techniques are bound to adapt accordingly. Rand Waltzman, a former programme manager at America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and now at the RAND Corporation, explains that “when target forces start to counter these [Russian] efforts and/or expose them on a large scale, the Russians are likely to accelerate the improvement of their techniques…in other words, an information-warfare arms race is likely to ensue.”“
We have seen how Islamic fundamentalist or jihadist propaganda has been used as a fund raising and recruiting tool and has even provoked deranged young people to attack Canadian on our own streets. Our own deeply entrenched tolerance of other religions, respect for the right of free speech, and our innate good manners (desiring to not give offence) means that radical preachers can spew hate in mosques and in university lecture halls in America, Britain and Canada and, tacitly, encourage young people to join the Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS war against the modern, liberal, secular West. (Iman Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi (pictured) is an American Muslim scholar and writer, who, since 2001, he has served as Dean of Academic Affairs at the Al-Maghrib Institute, an international Islamic educational institution with a campus in Houston, Texas. He also teaches in the Religious Studies department at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Iman Qadhi has written many books and lectures widely on Islam and was described by the New York Times Magazine as “one of the most influential conservative clerics in American Islam.”)
“In the future,” The Economist predicts “fake news” put together with the aid of artificial intelligence will be so realistic that even the best-resourced and most professional news organisation will be hard pressed to tell the difference between the real and the made-up sort. Official websites and social-media accounts will become increasingly vulnerable to hackers, who may be able not only to provoke stockmarket crashes and riots but even contrive crises between countries that may induce them to go to war with each other.” That is a frightening prospect and it is one which worries me, too.
Our best defence against “disinformation warfare” is a robust, even aggressive enunciation and propagation of our well established, time tested, values, that are deeply rooted in Anglo-Saxon England, in classical Rome and in Ancient Greece. Our core values and institutions are liberal and secular. They are tolerant, of course, but rooted in our traditions and institutions which are superior to those that some other wish to impose upon us.