A new war with an old face
DI AYA SAADI
Information warfare (IW) can be described as a particular type of (primarily military) operation, consisting in the exploitative use of information and information systems to weaken, destroy, corrupt or obtain adversaries’ data, in order to gain an advantage over the adversaries and manipulate or demoralize them. Although it can seem like a new phenomenon, it is not. In fact, the first example of information warfare can be traced back to WWI, but nowadays, it can be considered the new face of war because of technological development, which allows information to be circulated faster and to a larger audience. IW is an umbrella term, it combines electronic warfare, operations security, deception, physical attack, and psychological warfare. This article will be focused mainly on the latter.
What is it? And what is its purpose?
Psychological warfare is designed to distort and affect a target’s behaviour, reasoning, or belief/value system and to make the target’s attitude more favourable to the initiator’s objectives. This target can be identified in governments, civilians, particular groups, or individuals. Some types of psychological warfare can be seen in disinformation campaigns through social media, the creation of fake personas using artificially generated profile pictures that support these campaigns and help spread them by using bots across multiple platforms, virtual intimidation, and others.
Some modern historical examples
During WWI, propaganda became easier because of the large use and availability of newspapers, radio, videos, posters, pamphlets, and predominantly leaflets, which were transmitted via airborne or modified artillery. The countries that benefitted the most from this type of information warfare, especially the psychological one, were:
England. British soldiers made made great use of radio broadcasts against the Germans and were able to bring Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire.
Russia focused on the social dissolution in the Ottoman Empire and on stirring up the resentment that minorities were feeling.
The USA not only put in place a program called the Phoenix Program, which had the aim of both killing Viet Cong soldiers and daunt their supporters, but also used to play tapes of distorted human sounds at night, in order to terrify Vietnamese soldiers.
What about now?
Nowadays, the scenario has changed both regarding the means used and the political reasons behind it. This war is fought overall on social media and marginally on local media. Although many times the engagement has been low, it is nonetheless an important issue that needs more attention. Recently, there have been various reports by independent researchers about deceptive campaigns that have been taken down by social media such as Meta and Twitter, that could be linked to three countries’ military.
The US military used fake personas with profile pictures generated with GAN (generative adversarial networks), a machine learning technique, to carry out malign influence and disinformation campaigns across multiple platforms against Iran and its treatment of women, China and the repression of Uighurs or Russia and its role in the Ukraine War. They also encouraged cooperation with the United States in countries in Central Asia and the Middle East, on which they have little to no influence, trying to portray the USA in a positive light and tweeting in Arabic, Farsi, and Russian. In spite of all this effort, the campaign didn’t get enough engagement from the targeted communities, one of the reasons being posting during US working hours, instead of the target’s working hours. It was also found by researchers at the University of Adelaide that as many as 80% of the tweets about the first weeks of Russian invasion of Ukraine could be tracked down to a propaganda campaign originating from automated bot accounts. We can see then that the main goal of the USA disinformation campaign is to perpetuate the idea of a country leading and protecting democracy.
Russia has been mimicking Western news outlets to spread dissent, such as the German Der Spiegel, the Italian Ansa, and the British The Guardian. This campaign, also amplified by Russian embassies in the EU and Asia, tried to raise doubts about why governments supported Ukraine so strongly, about the real extent of the Russian invasion, and implied that Western sanctions on Russia would backfire. The main targets, for now, have been: Germany, Italy, France, and the UK. Russia has also been linked to interference during the 2016 and 2020 American presidential elections and the recent midterm elections, targeting far-right audiences and using memes in order to undermine support for the Democratic Party. Unlike the USA, Russia aims to create chaos and weaken and destabilize the West and intergovernmental organizations, exploiting existing divisions in the target countries.
In November the Japanese Defence Ministry released a think tank article about “China’s Quest for Control of the Cognitive Domain and Gray Zone Situations”, in which it describes the ways in which Beijing, under President Xi Jinping, has been running misinformation campaigns, especially focusing on Taiwan, psychological manipulation through legal threats and virtual intimidation, and many more. In the past years, Taiwan has accused China of influencing voters by offering cheap flights to Taiwanese citizens living in China or using military threats. Taiwanese elections are not the only elections that China is currently interfering in. Through intensive lobbying, control of foreign media outlets, and the installation of more than 50 illegal police stations all over the world, this opportunity was extended to many other countries such as Australia and the US. In the US, propaganda was concentrated on inflaming partisan infighting, attempting to mobilize street protests, dominating Chinese-language television and print, and discouraging Americans from voting. Another way American politics is being influenced is by gaining control and shaping the political discourse of university associations for Chinese-American students and paying inserts from China Daily in national outlets. In Australia, Beijing-based donors tried to shape Australian foreign policy more positively toward China through direct donations to prominent politicians, taking control of Chinese-language media outlets, and promoting pro-China candidates. China, by copying Russian tactics, aims to increase its soft power, win international public support, trigger the enemy by exploiting its internal contradictions and conflicts, and to obtain domestic stability.
In conclusion, we can see how citizens’ digital illiteracy and incapacity to discern online disinformation may be one of the biggest issues that must be resolved. Furthermore, another way to tackle this issue could be for governments to become more transparent in this domain.