Disinformation Series: Hostile Social Manipulation

Social networking concept.

The Cipher Brief is running a special series on disinformation over the next several months.  We’ll introduce you to experts in the field who will share ways to identify disinformation efforts, help you critically think your way through what you see and share tips on what to do when you do see it.  If you’d like to read the series from the beginning, be sure to check out Disinformation 101 featuring former CIA analyst and Intelligence Briefer Cindy Otis. 

Efforts at disinformation are ripped right from the headlines, as is evident by the protests that have been impacting Hong Kong for months now.  Twitter says it has suspended nearly 1,000 accounts that it believes were being operated by Chinese actors seeking to influence how the protests were being perceived.  Facebook followed suit and removed a number of accounts that looked like personal or corporate accounts – after being told they were likely fakes set up for influence purposes.

Russia and China are continuing to further invest in disinformation strategies that they believe will influence public opinion in the U.S. and other parts of the world as the U.S. struggles with a strategy to counter the tactics.  In a new book due out in October, former TIME Editor Richard Stengel argues that the battle for control of the information space is being won by Russia in part, because he who controls the internet controls the message, and he who allows the Internet to be free and open, pays the price by also allowing it to be manipulated.

This week, as part of our special series, we’re pleased to share a portion of a newly released RAND report on Hostile Social Manipulation.  The authors of the report found that “The role of information warfare in global strategic competition has become much more apparent in recent years.”  They point to a range of specific tactics from social media campaigns, to forgeries to cyberbullying and the harassment of individuals as well as the distribution of rumors and conspiracy theories as tools found in the hostile social manipulation arsenal.

Key Conclusions:   

  • The United States, we find, needs an updated framework for organizing its thinking about the manipulation of infospheres by foreign powers determined to gain competitive advantage.
  • It is now undeniable that leading autocratic states have begun to employ information channels for competitive advantage—plans that remain in their initial stages and that could unfold in several ways.
  • Efforts at social manipulation are effective to the degree that vulnerabilities in a society allow them to be effective. Such techniques can seldom create from whole cloth the situations that allow an aggressor to manipulate political life; they can only take advantage of realities being created by underlying trends.
  • There is as yet no conclusive evidence about the actual impact of hostile social manipulation to date. Significant gaps remain in our awareness of what has happened and how effective current social manipulation campaigns have been.
  • Despite the apparent limited effects to date, the marriage of the hostile intent of several leading powers and the evolution of several interrelated areas of information technology have the potential to vastly increase the effectiveness and reach of these techniques over time.
  • The United States and other democracies urgently need to undertake detailed, rigorous research on many aspects of this issue to provide themselves with a better understanding of many of the dynamics related to social manipulation.

Information and Democracy—A Perilous Relationship

In the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, the villain is Elliot Carver, head of a media conglomerate who has come to believe that information is a more powerful weapon than military force. He blackmails senior British leaders and ultimately tries to spark a war between China and Britain to bring his ally to power in Beijing. His plot is a combination of real-world actions—luring a British frigate into Chinese waters and then sinking it—with a global media blitz to “demonstrate” to the world that the action represents Chinese aggression and stoke the flames of British nationalism.

At one point in the film, Carver stands underneath massive television screens in the headquarters of his media empire, personally drafting the headlines—many of them referring to fabricated events—that will push the world toward war. “We’re both men of action,” he tells Bond, “but your era…is passing. Words are the new weapons, satellites the new artillery…Caesar had his legions, Napoleon had his armies. I have my divisions—TV, news, magazines.” Control of the global narrative, Carver suggests, will give him more power than any of those military leaders could ever wield.

The Bond plot offers one vision of a dystopian future: The idea that mass media in the electronic age has become so powerful, prevalent, and capable of manipulation that—with some “real” events thrown in for leavening—they could make whole populations believe the opposite of the truth. Elliot Carver represents a turbocharged version of the historical media figures who trafficked in rumor, innuendo, and sometimes outright fabrication. Empowered by modern technology and spurred by a determination to exacerbate existing social divisions and fuel popular trust in their authorities and institutions, he brings the practice to its logical conclusion: the replacement of reality with invented fiction.

The Growing Danger of Social Manipulation

Fast-forward 20 years, and this scenario appears to be becoming reality. Using techniques far more advanced than those available to Bond villains in the 1990s, today’s practitioners of what this report terms hostile social manipulation employ targeted social media campaigns, sophisticated forgeries, cyberbullying and harassment of individuals, distribution of rumors and conspiracy theories, and other tools and approaches to cause damage to the target state. This emerging practice reflects an updated and modified version of many long-established forms of influence, including propaganda, “active measures,” disinformation, and political warfare. “Adversaries do not seek to attack their opponents physically but merely to destabilize them,” one report on the trend concludes. “They favor assaults on the beliefs a population holds about its own government . . . and on a population’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction.”

These informational tools are often part of larger campaigns that go by various names—political warfare, measures short of war, gray zone campaigns. Such campaigns can involve many tools beyond the realm of the manipulation of information. They can include economic aid or sanctions, direct political meddling through support of specific parties or movements, clandestine operations to foment protests or even coups, and more. In this research, however, we are focused on one aspect of these larger campaigns: the use of information to shape perceptions and attitudes in other societies and achieve harmful effects.

The subject has become a leading topic of debate in the West in the wake of reports of Russian election interference, not only in the United States but throughout Europe. As British Prime Minister Theresa May recently said of the leading practitioner of such techniques, Russia is “seeking to weaponize information…in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions…threatening the international order on which we all depend.” Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and political analyst Michael Carpenter recently argued that the effort to “weaken and subvert Western democracies from the inside by weaponizing information, cyberspace, energy, and corruption” is part of a larger Russian program of “brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy.”

In the last year, reports have laid bare several major campaigns by a range of actors to use information for aggressive purposes.

  • Russia used a wide range of mechanisms to sow discord, exacerbate political divisions, reduce faith in public institutions generally and the political process especially, spark real-world political protests, and manipulate U.S. political and social outcomes. Those mechanisms have ranged from automated “bots” spewing thousands of tweets to political advertising on Facebook to direct propaganda broadcast through state-owned media channels to the targeted release of stolen documents to influence electoral outcomes. In the process, Russia is employing a confusing array of state-directed, state-supported, and state-encouraged actors to achieve its results.
  • The extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has continued to employ a sophisticated, multilevel social media outreach program to distribute its narrative, offer advice and motivation to potential radicals and recruit actual followers.
  • Several studies indicate that Russian and Venezuelan social media accounts flooded Spain with pro-independence messages during the 2017 Catalan separatist crisis. One analysis of over 5 million messages dealing with the separatist debate claimed that 97 percent of them came from Russian and Venezuelan accounts. “Europe is at war,” one account of this information campaign concluded. “Digital war…facing an attack meant to sow distrust, heighten divisions and undermine established democratic processes.”
  • China is reportedly becoming increasingly active in this space, including directly or indirectly supporting web and social media sites that promote China’s official narratives and, increasingly, spread misinformation and outright fabrications designed to exacerbate social divisions in the United States.6 Chinese state intelligence has used LinkedIn as a means of gathering information and establishing relationships with key individuals. Writing in The Washington Post, journalist Josh Rogin warned of the “huge scope and scale of Chinese Communist Party influence operations inside the United States, which permeate American institutions of all kinds. China’s overriding goal is, at the least, to defend its authoritarian system from attack and at most to export it to the world at America’s expense.” He described Beijing’s “combination of technology, coercion, pressure, exclusion and economic incentives” as being “beyond anything this country has faced before.”
  • Forms of information aggression have already gone well beyond disinformation and targeting elections. Both in Eastern Europe and in the West, Russia and others have undertaken cyber harassment, “trolling,” stealing and then releasing personal information, and other techniques to intimidate or discredit specific individuals or activist groups.
  • More broadly, Michael Abramowitz of Freedom House argued at the end of 2017 that “Online manipulation tactics played an important role in at least 17 other elections over the past year. From the Philippines and Ecuador to Turkey and Kenya, governing parties used paid commentators, trolls, bots, false news sites and propaganda outlets to inflate their popular support and essentially endorse themselves.”

These emerging tools and techniques represent a potentially significant threat to U.S. and allied national interests. Yet democracies often have difficulty perceiving information as a possible weapon. The natural assumption of most democratic systems is that free flow of information is an unalloyed social good. The reality of hostile actors in the infosphere does not completely undermine this assumption, but it does mean that the United States and other democratic countries must begin to think more strategically about the information environment, their vulnerabilities, and also potential advantages.

The Broader Danger: A Corrupted Information Environment

While there is as yet no conclusive evidence about the effects of what has taken place so far, these tools and techniques are symptomatic of truly fundamental shifts in the character of the infosphere in open societies. Clearly, the United States needs to work to ensure that foreign powers cannot easily skew elections or cause large-scale social conflict. But this research points to a much bigger task: understanding whether current trends in the infosphere risk generating dynamics that can have dangerous long-term effects on the cohesion and stability of those societies.

This danger might be termed the corruption of the infosphere. The goal of aggressors employing techniques of social manipulation will not typically be to change fundamental attitudes or “brainwash” large populations. Everything in what we know about attitudes, attitude change, and persuasion suggests that—unless a manipulator can exercise near-total control of an information space—such fine-tuning of beliefs across whole populations is extremely difficult. Instead, social manipulators will seek to cause havoc and to wage a systematic campaign of intimidation, sometimes including indirect or even direct physical violence against perceived opponents.

In the process, these trends may dramatically change our view of the effect of authoritarian regimes on world politics. Such states will continue to seek an iron grip on the information flows, beliefs, and behaviors of their own societies, a task now empowered by the vast droves of data available from state-controlled social media platforms and 21st-century surveillance technologies and techniques. But they will also increasingly seek to achieve global reach for some components of this autocratic program: not controlling information flows per se, but undermining the free world’s faith in shared facts and reality; working hard to exacerbate social divisions within democracies; and, most of all, conducting an ongoing campaign of harassment, intimidation, and virtual and physical violence against groups or individuals perceived as hostile to their state control and objectives. They will try to incite the same hesitation, fear, and self-censorship among opponents globally as they do among their own citizens within their borders.

As multiple states undertake such campaigns, moreover, a related danger could be the gradual emergence of a new global alliance— informal but nonetheless significant—of autocratic states collaborating to subvert the open information sphere and destabilize democratic societies.  Already, evidence has emerged of Russian and Venezuelan coordination in intervening in Spain’s Catalan-independence debate.  Some Chinese social media sites have reposted Russian propaganda.

Over time, states such as Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, and others could find ways to work together in creating alternative information systems, promoting counter-narratives, and achieving specific disruptive effects. One related outcome could be the deep fragmentation of global information networks, including the internet itself, into competing and mutually exclusive zones, with profound effects on world politics and international relations. This process is already well underway with the efforts on the part of several countries, most notably China, to build what amount to parallel internets.

It is too early to understand the full ramifications of these possibilities. Liberal democracies have long viewed the flow of knowledge and information as a competitive advantage.

Access the full RAND report on Hostile Social Manipulation

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