Sunday, June 5, 2016
Use and Abuse on the Worldwide Web
We’ve watched as ISIS “primitive fundamentalists,” using the Web to recruit activists, terrorists and fighters, have made a mockery of feeble U.S. and Western old-world digital “content” counter-measures. Social media usage in the Middle East sparked with the Arab Spring and has grown in sophistication and professionalism by quantum leaps since then. Smart governmental and stateless-terrorist networks have become very, very good at spreading falsehoods supporting their causes. We’ve also seen massive hacks into Western banks, government accounts and databases and even major film studios purportedly mounted from well-staffed governmental agencies ranging from North Korea and China to Russia.
Yet the United States, where the Web was born and the justifiable communications capital of the world, seems hapless against this foreign digital onslaught. We might be good in spreading and countering viruses, even hacking, but finding our voice against these forces seems to elude us.
When it comes to effective Web-badgering of outside journalists and critics, particularly those regionally-based, no one has been more effective than the fairly-well-organized Russian Web “trolls,” whose massive online assaults have often brought antagonistic journalists to their knees.
These Russian “troll armies,” sometimes quite openly and visibly operating from sizeable structures within Russia, claim to be independent voices exercising “free speech” rights without government support. No one outside Russia truly believes that they operate independent of governmental support, direct and indirect. No one believes that these “troll armies” are anything but Russian governmental counter-measures developed to vilify and denigrate foreign critics of Russian policies. Russia’s long history of mounting propaganda and stifling true criticism precedes them.
Nowhere is this effort more evident than in the neighboring Baltic nations, from the CIS nations to Finland. The main issue there is Russian opposition to the mounting efforts in the West to expand NATO ever closer to their border (including the concomitant mutual defense treaties and movement of NATO troops closer to Russia). The scale of Russian propaganda counter-measures is staggering. Jessikka Aro, “a journalist with Finland’s national broadcaster asked members of her audience to share their experience of encounters with Russia’s ‘troll army,’ a raucous and often venomous force of online agitators.” New York Times, May 30th. What she got in response changed her life.
“[She] was taken aback, and shaken, by a vicious retaliatory campaign of harassment and insults against her and her work by those same pro-Russian voices… ‘Everything in my life went to hell thanks to the trolls,’ said Ms. Aro, a 35-year-old investigative reporter with the social media division of Finland’s state broadcaster, Yle Kioski.
“Abusive online harassment is hardly limited to pro-Russian Internet trolls. Ukraine and other countries at odds with the Kremlin also have legions of aggressive avengers on social media… But pro-Russian voices have become such a noisy and disruptive presence that both NATO and the European Union have set up special units to combat what they see as a growing threat not only to civil discourse but to the well-being of Europe’s democratic order and even to its security.
“This ‘information war,’ said Rastislav Kacer, a veteran diplomat who served as Slovakia’s ambassador to Washington and at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, ‘is just part of a bigger struggle.’ While not involving bloodshed, he added, it ‘is equally as dangerous as more conventional hostile action.’
“For Ms. Aro, the abuse increased sharply last year when, following up on reports in the opposition Russian news media, she visited St. Petersburg to investigate the workings of a Russian ‘troll factory.’ The big office churns out fake news and comment, particularly on Ukraine, and floods websites and social media with denunciations of Russia’s critics… In response to her reporting, pro-Russian activists in Helsinki organized a protest outside the headquarters of Yle, accusing it of being a troll factory itself. Only a handful of people showed up…
“At the same time, Ms. Aro has been peppered with abusive emails, vilified as a drug dealer on social media sites and mocked as a delusional bimbo in a music video posted on YouTube… ‘There are so many layers of fakery you get lost,’ said Ms. Aro, who was awarded the Finnish Grand Prize for Journalism in March.
“As Ms. Aro’s experiences illustrate, Finland, a country at the center of Russia’s concerns about NATO’s expansion toward its borders, has emerged as a particularly active front in the information wars. A member of the European Union with an 830-mile-long border with Russia, Finland has stayed outside the United States-led military alliance but, unnerved by Russian military actions in Ukraine and its saber-rattling in the Baltic Sea, has expanded cooperation with NATO and debated whether to apply for full membership.” NY Times.
Welcome to the new world of enhanced propaganda, unencumbered by facts or a sustainable moral code. Although the United States has lived for decades disseminating disinformation and deflection, supporting brutal dictators and supplying arms to repressive regimes, when it comes to its history of public communications – most evidenced by its once glorious Voice of America (still broadcasting by radio with a companion Website, but vastly less influential these days) – American policy-makers have elected simply to report the truth in local languages.
The VOA and what American/Western policy-makers have been willing to embrace in Web-based communications against these hostiles has been no match for these dedicated, professional foreign-government-supported digital distortionists. To play the game, the United States and her Western allies must enlist savvy digital communicators, expert in regional realities, culture and language to deploy responsive and proactive messaging, across the Web and deep into mobile communications. Social media on steroids. But in an era of budgetary cutbacks and general railing against big government, these basic needs are solely underserved. Guess we get what we pay for.
I’m Peter Dekom, and strangely, the growing vision of the world through American eyes is rapidly departing from the way the world really is.