Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Weaponizing Information

To some, the sweet naiveté of the America’s early-stage attempt to topple communist regimes was an assault with truth. Notwithstanding a slight tweaking toward pro-American views and themes, the Voice of America directed its transmitters towards the communist bloc nations… expanding to satellite, social media and global programming, in many languages, over the years.
The VOA charter—signed into law in 1976 by President Gerald Ford—requires VOA to ‘serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news’ and ‘be accurate, objective and comprehensive’… VOA radio and television broadcasts are distributed by satellite, cable and on FM, AM, and shortwave radio frequencies. They are streamed on individual language service websites, social media sites and mobile platforms. VOA has affiliate and contract agreements with radio and television stations and cable networks worldwide.’” Wikipedia. Propaganda? Just a touch of bias but a generally reliable news source? Yesterday’s strategy that is not remotely competitive with what more sinister government and extremist disseminators of information are actually doing?
The Arab Spring “sprang” into a tsunami of violent change through what seemed to be a grassroots movement that literally formed itself and built on the successful efforts to mobilize rebellion. Social media. The Web. The results were stunning. Those who were outnumbered, outgunned and facing what seemed to be insurmountable odds took on (and then down) entire nations, armies and formal governmental structures… with words and images.
ISIS, relying heavily on generally-available images enhanced with footage by their corps of professional videographers, has turned electronic communications into highly-effective recruiting tools… and less-than-subtle messages to those facing conquest as well as their enemies to instill fear – terror if you will – to soften those targets before the physical assaults even began. They glorify their atrocities, reach far into global communications, seemingly far more advanced than the electronic counter-measures of those who oppose them.
Propaganda has always been an effective tool from dictators – from Hitler to Kim Jong-un – to control and motivate their own populations. But the use of these control mechanisms have expanded in a digital world. In addition to hacking into the servers in search of sensitive and embarrassing information, savvy operatives have learned how to reach far outside of their own national or controlled boundaries… to the world. Far beyond the little “dirty tricks” and strategic disinformation deployed by spies during earlier wars.
The master of this universe may well be Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a nation with a powerful and modern army, but one that is not remotely up to the Western NATO forces that oppose it. So they have learned how to weaponized disinformation, and they are damned good at it… and even better at making it almost impossible to prove that the disinformation was directly provided by Moscow.
Let’s face it; governments lie. Some more than others, and some are really skilled.  Russia is really good at hacking – don’t believe me?... ask the DNC about all those embarrassing emails that somehow surfaced during HRC’s campaign – and shameless when it comes to mendacity (a polite word for lying through your teeth). They never supported the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, much less supplied real weapons and real soldiers? Hippity-hop, and I’m the Easter Bunny!
While we’re kind of sort of used to Russian lies… not so much some of our Western friends… like Sweden, a nation that is currently wrestling with whether or not to join NATO, an organization that Russia despises as it vies to pull Europe away from its American nemesis. “With a vigorous national debate underway on whether Sweden should enter a military partnership with NATO, officials in Stockholm suddenly encountered an unsettling problem: a flood of distorted and outright false information on social media, confusing public perceptions of the issue.
“The claims were alarming: If Sweden, a non-NATO member, signed the deal, the alliance would stockpile secret nuclear weapons on Swedish soil; NATO could attack Russia from Sweden without government approval; NATO soldiers, immune from prosecution, could rape Swedish women without fear of criminal charges.
“They were all false, but the disinformation had begun spilling into the traditional news media, and as the defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, traveled the country to promote the pact in speeches and town hall meetings, he was repeatedly grilled about the bogus stories.
“‘People were not used to it, and they got scared, asking what can be believed, what should be believed?’ said Marinette Nyh Radebo, Mr. Hultqvist’s spokeswoman.
“As often happens in such cases, Swedish officials were never able to pin down the source of the false reports. But they, numerous analysts and experts in American and European intelligence point to Russia as the prime suspect, noting that preventing NATO expansion is a centerpiece of the foreign policy of President Vladimir V. Putin, who invaded Georgia in 2008 largely to forestall that possibility.” New York Times, August 28th.
Russia is balancing its weaker military capacity against its more-than-adequate disinformation expertise. It’s a really big deal. “In Crimea, eastern Ukraine and now Syria, Mr. Putin has flaunted a modernized and more muscular military. But he lacks the economic strength and overall might to openly confront NATO, the European Union or the United States. Instead, he has invested heavily in a program of ‘weaponized’ information, using a variety of means to sow doubt and division. The goal is to weaken cohesion among member states, stir discord in their domestic politics and blunt opposition to Russia.
“‘Moscow views world affairs as a system of special operations, and very sincerely believes that it itself is an object of Western special operations,’ said Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped establish the Kremlin’s information machine before 2008. ‘I am sure that there are a lot of centers, some linked to the state, that are involved in inventing these kinds of fake stories’…
The flow of misleading and inaccurate stories is so strong that both NATO and the European Union have established special offices to identify and refute disinformation, particularly claims emanating from Russia.” NY Times. But that’s just Sweden; surely it can’t happen here.
As the FBI has alerted several state election officials of foreign hacks of election systems, as a rather clearly pro-Trump effort to spread disinformation is clearly traceable back to Russia, is Mr. Putin deploying his operatives to influence our presidential election? How about this report from the August 29th Washington Post: “The Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported Monday [August 29th] night that Russian hackers have also been targeting state voter-registration systems. And, in an apparent effort to boost Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, they’re leaking what they believe to be the most damaging documents at strategic points in the campaign.
“[In late August], we learned something else: The Russians aren’t just hackers — they’re also hacks. Turns out that before leaking their stolen information, they are in some cases doctoring the documents, making edits that add false information and then passing the documents off as the originals.”
Is Vladimir going to manipulate the Donald into the presidency? How do we counter this move? And do we match Mr. Putin and the spin-masters at ISIS? Do we unmask them? What do we use to counter these lies? From where? Directly from governmental sources or untraceable clandestine sources with lots of plausible deniability? Although we are a technical giant, we seem to be utterly helpless against some fairly pedestrian patterns of lies and digital manipulation… and we’re not talking fingers or toes!
I’m Peter Dekom, and if you were charged with deploying counter-measures, what would you do?

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