Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Weaponization of Information


RAND |  State-sponsored propaganda and disinformation have been in existence for as long as there have been states. The major difference in the 21st century is the ease, efficiency, and low cost of such efforts. Because audiences worldwide rely on the Internet and social media as primary sources of news and information, they have emerged as an ideal vector of information attack. 

Most important from the U.S. perspective, Russian IO techniques, tactics and procedures are developing constantly and rapidly, as continually measuring effectiveness and rapidly evolving techniques are very cheap compared to the costs of any kinetic weapon system—and they could potentially be a lot more effective.

At this point, Russian IO operators use relatively unsophisticated techniques systematically and on a large scale. This relative lack of sophistication leaves them open to detection. For example, existing technology can identify paid troll operations, bots, etc. Another key element of Russian IO strategy is to target audiences with multiple, conflicting narratives to sow seeds of distrust of and doubt about the European Union (EU) as well as national governments. These can also be detected. The current apparent lack of technical sophistication of Russian IO techniques could derive from the fact that, so far, Russian IO has met with minimal resistance. However, if and when target forces start to counter these efforts and/or expose them on a large scale, the Russians are likely to accelerate the improvement of their techniques, leading to a cycle of counter-responses. In other words, an information warfare arms race is likely to ensue.

A Strategy to Counter the Russian Threat
Because the culture and history of each country is unique and because the success of any IO defense strategy must be tailored to local institutions and populations, the most effective strategies are likely to be those that are developed and managed on a country-by-country basis. An information defense strategy framework for countering Russian IO offensives should be “whole-of-nation” in character. A whole-of-nation approach is a coordinated effort between national government organizations, military, intelligence community, industry, media, research organizations, academia and citizen organized groups. A discreet US Special Operations Force could provide individual country support as well as cross country coordination.

Just as in the physical world, good maps are critical to any IO strategy. In the case of IO, maps show information flows. Information maps must show connectivity in the information environment and help navigate that environment. They exist as computer software and databases. Information cartography for IO is the art of creating, maintaining, and using such maps. An important feature of information maps is that they are constantly changing to reflect the dynamic nature of the information environment. Because they are artificially intelligent computer programs, they can answer questions; provide situation awareness dynamically; and help to plan, monitor, and appropriately modify operations. Information maps are technically possible today and already exist in forms that can be adapted to support the design and execution IO strategy.

As an example, most of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states, as well as several non-NATO partners, are already subject to concentrated Russian IO and they illustrate ongoing Russian IO techniques. Using information cartography, it is possible to map key Russian sources as part of Russian IO operations against a target state. These sources might include:

• Russian and target country think tanks
• foundations (e.g., Russkiy Mir)
• authorities (e.g., Rossotrudnichestvo)
• television stations (e.g. RT)
• pseudo-news agencies and multimedia services (e.g., Sputnik)
• cross-border social and religious groups
• social media and Internet trolls to challenge democratic values, divide Europe, gather domestic support, and create the perception of failed states in the EU’s eastern neighborhood
• Russian regime–controlled companies and organizations
• Russian regime–funded political parties and other organizations in target country in
particular and within the EU in general intended to undermine political cohesion
• Russian propaganda directly targeting journalists, politicians, and individuals in target
countries in particular and the EU in general.
 
Similarly, the mapping of target state receivers as part of Russian IO against the target state
might include:

• national government organizations
• military
• intelligence community
• industry
• media
• independent think tanks
• academia
• citizen-organized groups.

An effective information defensive strategy would be based on coordinated countering of information flows revealed by information maps. An effective strategy would include methods for establishing trust between elements of the defense force and the public. The strategy also will include mechanisms to detect the continuously evolving nature of the Russian IO threat and rapidly adapt in a coordinated fashion across all defense elements.

Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews of the RAND Corporation observe: “Experimental research in psychology suggests that the features of the contemporary Russian propaganda model have the potential to be highly effective.”14 They present a careful and concise analysis of relevant psychological research results that should inform any information defensive strategy. For example, they describe how propaganda can be used to distort perceptions of reality:

• People are poor judges of true versus false information—and they do not necessarily remember that particular information was false.
• Information overload leads people to take shortcuts in determining the trustworthiness of messages.
• Familiar themes or messages can be appealing even if they are false.
• Statements are more likely to be accepted if backed by evidence, even if that evidence is false.
• Peripheral cues—such as an appearance of objectivity—can increase the credibility of propaganda.15
 
Here is what a typical offensive strategy against a target population might look like. It consists of several steps:

1. Take the population and break it down into communities, based on any number of criteria
(e.g. hobbies, interests, politics, needs, concerns, etc.).
2. Determine who in each community is most susceptible to given types of messages.
3. Determine the social dynamics of communication and flow of ideas within each community.
4. Determine what narratives of different types dominate the conversation in each community.
5. Use all of the above to design and push a narrative likely to succeed in displacing a narrative unfavorable to you with one that is more favorable.
6. Use continual monitoring and interaction to determine the success of your effort and adjust in real time.
 
Technologies currently exist that make it possible to perform each of these steps continuously and at a large scale. However, while current technologies support manual application of the type of psychological research results presented by Paul and Matthews, they do not fully automate it. That would be the next stage in technology development.

These same technologies can be used for defensive purposes. For example, you could use the techniques for breaking down communities described above to detect adversary efforts to push a narrative and examine that narrative’s content. The technology can help researchers focus while searching through massive amounts of social media data.