Monday, March 13, 2017

Hybrid Warfare: NATO Investigates Putin's Troll War against the West 1/3

  by Nomad

The role that social media outlets, like Twitter and Facebook, play in managing and influence public perception has really come to the forefront since the 2016 US election. Few would argue that social media's influence in this presidential election is stronger than it has ever been.
Immediately after the election, NPR pointed out how social media have changed our national political conversation, turning it into "a loud mess." The advent of fake news transformed what should have been a public discussion into a battle of conspiracy theories.

Experts are now studying whether it was some natural effect or whether all of the confusion was actually stage-managed by unseen hands?

NATO and Social Media 

In 2015, well before the election, one of those who took a keen interest in this subject was NATO, specifically the Strategic Communication -Centre of Excellence (NATO StratCom COE). This agency was asked to conduct a study on how social media has been transformed into a weapon of hybrid warfare.

The report that emerges presents a frightening snapshot of the methods, targets, and effectiveness of this new type of warfare.  
Ever since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, for example, we have seen fake identities and accounts being created in order to "disseminate narratives through social media, blogs, and web commentaries in order to manipulate, harass, or deceive opponents."

It is no secret that so-called "troll farms" have sprung up in Russian cities. These farms are not for growing potatoes. One definition of a troll farm sounds like this: a nickname given to outfits that operate armies of sock-puppet social-media accounts, in order to create the illusion of a rabid grassroots movement.

That's not a very complete picture. These farms generally operate with specific goals and target specific groups. Their main function is to spread disinformation, rumors, or falsified facts,  to enter into discussions and to flood topic-related web spaces with their own messages or abuse.

Despite the fact that the investigative journalists have documented such troll havens, the effects have not been adequately measured. It's often very difficult, as the foreword of the NATO report notes, to distinguish between the paid trolls and people who are simply expressing their extreme opinions.  There are also attention addicted trolls who just get off on making people miserable.

Another question that needed answering: How exactly is pro-Russian trolling used to influence public opinion, especially in  NATO member countries?

To fill this information gap, NATO recruited the study Internet Trolling as a Tool of Hybrid Warfare: the Case of Latvia.

I know what you're saying. What's Latvia got to do with it? 
NATO considered that little Baltic nation in the shadow of Russia an excellent test case to understand the complexities of this type of warfare. We will look at that study in part three in more detail.
First, we have to examine both the definitions and the nature of the warfare itself.

To Understand the Weapon

To fully grasp weaponization of online media and trolling, you have to understand terms and concepts. Some of the terms might sound new but many of the concepts are as old as the art of war. For example, the term hybrid warfare is defined by analysts as "a combination of regular warfare with intelligence and diversionary methods, as well as information and cyber warfare."

Yet, as scary and futuristic as that sounds, it's not a new idea. (Some argue that the term isn't really very helpful since it could apply to a lot of other multi-lateral threats.)

A more precise term is information warfare which is a type of war-making that aims at weakening the resolve of the indigenous population, as well as "the support of the home fronts of the intervening nations, and the support of the international community."
Wikipedia defines it like this:
Information warfare may involve collection of tactical information, assurance(s) that one's own information is valid, spreading of propaganda or disinformation to demoralize or manipulate, the enemy and the public, undermining the quality of opposing force information and denial of information-collection opportunity.
Again, it's hardly a new phenomenon. Orchestrated whispering campaigns in the public forums go back to the days of ancient Greece.  
When Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War back in the 5th century BC, the idea was already well-established.
“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.”
Tzu also specified how to break resistance. “The whole secret," he wrote, "lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.”

In modern times, Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally and Lord Haw-Haw used the medium of radio broadcast in a similar manner.  When we compare radio to the Internet, there are certain aspects of this form of transmission particularly damaging.

Psychological warfare is another related term that isn't cutting-edge by any stretch of the imagination. It has just been repackaged for the Internet era. It is roughly defined as “influencing the target audience’s values and belief system, their perceptions, emotions, motives, reasoning, and ideally, their behavior."

Compared to past propaganda techniques, Internet trolls are, however, much more effective. Why? They are able to infiltrate public forums, posing as faceless members of the crowd, rather than a voice of authority. This cloak of characterless invisibility makes them much harder to combat. Are they pranksters? Are they online hecklers or do they have a more malicious intent? 

Indeed, according to the NATO study, the chief novelty of the current type of warfare, the weaponization of online media, is both continuously ongoing and hard to detect. The strategy is so robust due to the fact that it is so difficult to identify the source. And that's especially true when, as more often than not, it is waged from several sources simultaneously.

For the enemy, there's another obvious advantage, one prized by the bean counters:
Such a warfare strategy penetrates all levels of society at a very low cost. Even if the audience does not necessarily believe in the planted information, the abundance of unvetted information of itself leads to a persistent distrust of public information and the media.
There's only so much fake news that can be accepted and/or rejected before people stop believing all news. To put it metaphorically, it's like poisoning the well of useful information.

Russian trolls

The New Warrior

The foot soldier in this new form of warfare is, as you might have guessed, the troll. It's a term does not have a precise definition and who is and who isn't a troll is often confused. As the report points out, it is imperative to distinguish between a classic troll and the hybrid warrior type of troll.

In the social media world, a troll was simply a person that gets his jollies from starting feuds online, pissing people off and clearing online forums of rational discussion.
In the report, NATO notes that classic trolls' only intention is to shock, enrage, scare, or threaten – or, simply, to emotionally provoke readers.
The secondary intention of classic trolls is to capture the attention of addressees for as long as possible (including massive sabotage with huge quantities of text); but inevitably, this leads back to the first intention – to harm emotionally.
Generally speaking, classic trolls are not aligned with any ideology, belief or set of true (or false) information – content is just an instrument in their hands to implement their main purpose – to provoke.

On the surface, the characteristics of hybrid trolls appear to be the same as classic trolls; only their intentions are different. In fact, the key difference from classic trolls is that hybrid trolls have an inherent additional purpose. The report states that hybrid trolls ‘stand out’, because they make diversions from typical trolling.

These diversions are fundamentally connected with disinformation, the dissemination of conspiracy theories and controversies, etc. Nevertheless, the hybrid troll never stops being a troll – meaning that emotional provocation is present. Hybrid trolls include disinformation messages and spreading of conspiracy theories in order to confuse and confound.

In both cases, trolling is not actually about passing along information, whether that be fact or opinion. It is about creating the maximum disruption and argument, generally through provocative messages. or as one analyst described, “the posting of incendiary comments with the intent of provoking others into conflict”.

In hybrid warfare, the troll functions much more of an agent that infiltrates behind enemy lines and poses as a local in order to spread a particular propaganda message. 

One of the most toxic effects of trolling in hybrid warfare is to sow seeds of doubt and distrust in the mind of the public against their own government. When used with a barrage of fake news stories, trolling can disrupt the channels of public information.
Herein lies the difference: a classic troll acts with no apparent instrumental purpose, whereas purported hybrid trolls... communicate a particular ideology and, most importantly, operate under the direction and orders of a particular state or state institution.

The New Battlefield

As the role of social media, like Twitter and Facebook expanded, it was recognized that it could be used as an effective weapon of choice.
It was non-destructive when you compared to a few dozen nuclear bombs and a heck of a lot cheaper than battleships and tanks.
So long as it was conducted behind the scenes, in a relatively open society, in which the flow of information is more or less unimpeded, is practically impossible to defend against.
And, if nothing else, it could lay the groundwork before any actual blood-and-guts fighting began.

The results of a successful social media disinformation campaign can have a huge impact on the enemy's decision-making process, warns the NATO report. Think elections and referendums. Moreover, it creates effects that are -as a businessman like Trump would say- cost-effective.

The social media environment has been the battlefield for some time now, the study points out. For example, it is used to collect information, target terror organization, and to launch psychological warfare campaigns to counter similar propaganda efforts by groups like ISIS. When ISIS lost its ability to use propaganda to spread fear and aid in recruitment via the Internet, it was well on its way to being destroyed. 

The study cites another example too. The practice is known as astroturfing.
“Intelligence agencies have learned to use social media to their own advantage. By using fake identities, they are able to create an illusion of support for ideas. They are also able to challenge ideas on social-media platforms by inserting counter arguments that appear to come from the ‘grass-roots’ level of a movement”
In so many ways, social media is an effective tool for disseminating (dis)information and influencing the population. It can be used for crowd manipulation and hysteria propagation, but also for propaganda, call-to-rebellion and hate messages.
It can also be used to blur the lines between fact and opinion, to create confusion about what actually happened. (This effect was seen in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that was shot down over Ukraine on 17 July 2014.)

That much is hard to argue with. The report then turns to the evidence of Russian use of hybrid warfare.

Plausible Justification

In December 2014, the Security Council of the Russian Federation published the new Russian Military Doctrine. The doctrine highlights the immense geopolitical threats that Russia is currently facing and the new methods that the West is using against Russia. To read that, one might have thought that Russia is surrounded by threats and that only decisive action- as opposed to compromise and diplomacy- was the only solution.

The perceived threat against the Russian state provided enough justification for the government to react and to establish a new response strategy, " consisting of military and non-military measures and to incorporate new, non-traditional methods."

For informed Western minds, there were plenty of warnings in that document about the direction Russia was intending. Protecting the country from external and internal threats has always been an effective tool in autocratic regimes.
The narrative of Russian leadership was that the nation was under attack: facing off against an enemy  who was intent on "undermining patriotic and historic traditions, provoking inter-ethnic and social tensions." 
Very Cold War stuff.
The Doctrine concludes that the only efficient way to ensure information security is a “joint [counter-] effort by all internet users, journalists, local authorities, civil-society organisations, etc.”
Interestingly, the phrasing implies that journalists and all internet users are agents of the state and obliged to join in defending the administration under a banner of national security.  Still, there's nothing out of the ordinary in a government using whatever tools it has to defend the nation. The doctrines advocate a strictly defensive policy.
However, it was extremely easy to blur the lines of a defensive position to an offensive one.

In general, the NATO report states, these official documents, like the public discussion in relation to them, portray Russia as holding a defensive position. According to them, Russia is only fighting
“for the demilitarisation of […] the global information network, because it cannot permit the country and its surrounding areas to come under American ‘quasi-occupation.’”
With this call to arms, the Russian leadership could rationalize almost anything, whether that be a widespread campaign of information warfare on the Internet, hacking servers to disseminate damaging information and even the tampering with elections in targeted nations.

Hysteria and Demoralization

But, where is the actual evidence that Russia is officially supporting troll attacks? In reality, there is a lack of an officially published strategy. That doesn't mean much.

The fact that trolling is not outlined in any official state strategy enables Russia to plausibly deny any accusations of trolling activities. Russia could also claim that accusations of trolling are a part of the Western information war against it.
The catch-all phrase generally employed to dismiss these claims is "anti-Russia hysteria."
(It's amazing how many sites suddenly began using this same phrase at the same time.)

Western analysts might write this off as little more than "gaslighting"- manipulating a person, or in this case a nation, by psychological means into questioning its own sanity.
According to that idea, Russia hasn't been launching a sophisticated form of assault through social media. It all your imagination. It's fake news. It's your own government and corporate media lying to you.
Hybrid trolling as a strategy is not aimed at achieving decisive victories. Instead, it targets the credibility and stability of adversaries’ governments as well as public support for them.
Gaslighting is, of course, a cruel form of demoralization. And that's something Putin didn't invent. Another military commander and leader also commended the idea of demoralizing the enemy from within.
How to achieve the moral breakdown of the enemy before the war has started- that is the problem that interests me. Whoever has experienced war at the front will want to refrain from all avoidable bloodshed.
That leader was the infamous destroyer of Europe and mass murderer, Adolf Hitler.

In Part 2 of this series, we shall take a look at what the NATO report tells us about how trolls were employed against Russia's neighbors and eventually against the United States. 
And we shall also see who left the castle gates unlocked.