An interview between Adrian Bonenberger and Volodymyr Horbulin, “one of Ukraine’s most accomplished elder statesmen,” with some interesting insights on hybrid warfare, a term describing the use of social media to spread propaganda aimed at destabilizing a country, with the ultimate goal of compromising the target country’s independence. The propaganda, often in the form of tantalizing fake news, is engineered toward manipulating public opinion in such a way that the country becomes more and more vulnerable to outside interference. (Jump to the end of the summary if you’re interested in more about how this plays out in regard to the current political situation in the U.S.)
Ukrainian elder statesman: How Russian hybrid war is changing the world order (Foreign Policy, Thomas E. Ricks. March 21, 2017)
It’s worth taking the time to read the whole thing, but here’s a summary:
VOLODYMYR HORBULIN: An important lesson we have learned from hybrid war in Ukraine is that such wars begin long before the first shots are fired. It is difficult to recognize and understand the signs of it at the first stage: When freedom of speech turns into aggressive propaganda, when protests in the country are inspired by external forces, when the aggressor uses absolutely democratic tools to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state to block the activities of international organizations aimed at preventing or resolving conflicts, and so on.
Down the road, hybrid warfare often relies on economic actions as well — in the case of Ukraine, for just one example, Horbulin cites the Russian gas cutoffs to Ukraine beginning in January 2006. Eventually, it may extend onward, as in Ukraine’s case, into moves aimed at compromising a nation’s territorial integrity (i.e. military actions by a combination of externally-influenced protest & paramilitary groups and invading foreign military forces, disguised or not).
The following excerpt illustrates some of Horbulin’s thinking on how to inoculate citizens against the manipulations of opinion and belief that are becoming more and more prevalent in the media sphere:
VOLODYMYR HORBULIN: One of the main characteristic features of modern hybrid war is its destructive impact in the field of information. Access to information is almost unlimited now. But one must know how to use this information. That is why we should describe education not only as knowledge, but more in terms of understanding, the ability to develop critical thinking in citizens; education should be measured by in one’s critical approach to information flow, the ability to analyze and draw conclusions, an ability to form accurate opinions based on reality. In this case, an educated person won’t become a victim of information and psychological manipulation, especially via social networks.
Education must involve the formulation of critical opinion, critical perception, not simply provide knowledge. Knowledge becomes out of date faster than it appears. Therefore, in the first place education has to develop the skills to acquire and synthesize knowledge. It is good that there are plenty of such opportunities today.
Speaking of social networks, we really can say that we are talking about certain forms of “weaponization” here. I would even say that not only social media, but all kinds of social communication and all civil society institutions have been subjected to such a “weaponization” procedure. Hybrid conflict almost completely blurs the conventional boundary between “combatants” and “not combatants,” between “weapons” and “not weapons.”
We have to understand that today the world is infected with a kind of memo-virus to some extent – people want to consume more and more information, while they have less and less time to process and evaluate it. Hence the increased opportunities for manipulation. In this sense, social networks are probably the best tool by which to quickly spread information of dubious quality within broad masses. And we’re not even talking about “rumors” — the traditional tool of information manipulation used by security services — these alternative facts or “fake news” are both a much easier and simultaneously much more powerful tool to use. Its influence on public opinion is increasing, and therefore public opinion, I agree with you, becomes a form of weapon. But this weapon is targeted primarily at the democratic governments that depend on this opinion, and which take it into account.
Here’s a list of further reading for those interested in this topic:
Russians took a page from corporate America by using Facebook tool to ID and influence voters Washington Post, October 2017
Russian operatives set up an array of misleading Web sites and social media pages to identify American voters susceptible to propaganda, then used a powerful Facebook tool to repeatedly send them messages designed to influence their political behavior, say people familiar with the investigation into foreign meddling in the U.S. election.
…The Web sites and Facebook pages displayed ads or other messages focused on such hot-button issues as illegal immigration, African American political activism and the rising prominence of Muslims in the United States. The Russian operatives then used a Facebook “retargeting” tool, called Custom Audiences, to send specific ads and messages to voters who had visited those sites, say people familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details from an ongoing investigation.
Facebook’s Russia-Linked Ads Came in Many Disguises New York Times, October 2017
While American intelligence agencies concluded in January that a major goal of Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, was to damage Hillary Clinton, the Facebook operation shows the Russian government reached deeply into polarizing political issues on multiple fronts. Russia experts said Mr. Putin hoped to mar the image of American democracy and handicap the United States’ international influence.
In every case, the voices posed as Americans and presumed to speak for like-thinking fellow citizens: anti-immigration zealots, gun-rights advocates, gay rights supporters, African-American activists — and, more incongruously, dog lovers, according to the two people familiar with the sampling of advertisements.
…To aid the viral spread, these accounts paid for “boosted posts” — Facebook’s name for one of its paid advertisements — to appear interspersed in users’ news feeds, the central column filled with status updates and photos from friends. Those posts often included a call to action, like asking users to join a bogus group or share the post.
The investigation goes digital: Did someone point Russia to specific online targets? Washington Post, July 2017
Before social media — most specifically, Facebook — campaigns had to balance cost, reach and targeting through spending on direct mail, field programs and television. Now, they can pick out individuals from a massive crowd with a tailor-made video ad for relatively little cost — with much less of a chance that their opponents find out it ever happened.
…Twitter’s advertising system allows one to target users pretty precisely: by Zip code, by interest or by email address, if you upload a list into the system.
Facebook’s targeting is even more robust, as we’ve reported previously, allowing campaigns to upload full voter files that can be used to target specific people. The more narrowly you target, the more expensive it gets, but when you want to keep the profile of your post as small as possible, that’s a cost you’ll pay.
A Republican contractor’s database of nearly every voter was left exposed on the Internet for 12 days, researcher says Washington Post, June 2017
The company also kept information on Americans’ voting histories and their reported enthusiasm for Trump, Vickery said. Some of the files assigned voters a score based on their views of 46 different issues ranging from immigration to trade. Nearly 170 gigabytes of the exposed data consisted of social media posts scraped from Reddit, he added.
The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine Scout, February 2017
There’s a new automated propaganda machine driving global politics. How it works and what it will mean for the future of democracy.
Psychologist Michal Kosinski developed a method to analyze people in minute detail based on their Facebook activity. Did a similar tool help propel Donald Trump to victory? Two reporters from Zurich-based Das Magazin went data-gathering.
The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S. New York Times, December 2016
While there’s no way to be certain of the ultimate impact of the hack, this much is clear: A low-cost, high-impact weapon that Russia had test-fired in elections from Ukraine to Europe was trained on the United States, with devastating effectiveness. For Russia, with an enfeebled economy and a nuclear arsenal it cannot use short of all-out war, cyberpower proved the perfect weapon: cheap, hard to see coming, hard to trace.
Invasion of the troll armies: from Russian Trump supporters to Turkish state stooges The Guardian, November 2016
Governments all over the world are manipulating social media for their own ends. That’s where the digital footsoldiers come in – smearing opponents, spreading disinformation and posting fake texts for ‘pocket money’
Hacking of two state voter databases prompts FBI to call for better security The Guardian, August 2016
FBI warning does not identify two states targeted by cyber intrusions but reports say Arizona and Illinois voter registration systems were infiltrated
The Agency New York Times, June 2015
From a nondescript office building in St. Petersburg, Russia, an army of well-paid “trolls” has tried to wreak havoc all around the Internet — and in real-life American communities.
Fake news stories. Doctored photographs. Staged TV clips. Armies of paid trolls. Has Putin’s Russia developed a new kind of information warfare – fought in the ‘psychosphere’ rather than on the battlefield? Or is it all just a giant bluff?
Former workers tell how hundreds of bloggers are paid to flood forums and social networks at home and abroad with anti-western and pro-Kremlin comments