Information war and propaganda: a brute force attack on reality
by Chris Zappone
Why is it so hard to get information about the source of computer hacks? Because the lag time between the hack and the discovery of the intrusion or theft can be months, if not longer. The Shadow Brokers exploits, for example, (supposing they were actually hacked), are thought to date from 2013.
The DNC hack was known about by Washington insiders since last year, but only became major news this year during the election.
“The average time it takes a victim of a cyber attack to detect that they have been breached is 205 days,” writes strategist Peter W Singer.
And that’s just when a target detects the attack.
“In cybersecurity…time operates by different rules,” Singer said, contrasting the idea of Cold War missile deterrence with the realities of today’s cyber conflict.
“The physics of a ballistic missile’s speed and arc determined conceptions of deterrence during the Cold War,” Singer writes.
Another place where time is operating by different rules is the world of news – and this has important considerations for information war and propaganda.
In fact, competition for eyeballs in news has media outlets in a situation with troubling parallels to that of a Cold War missile launch stand off. Decision-makers must act on incomplete or not fully digested information in minutes rather than days with the fear of being beat by competitor a major factor.
Thankfully, the button to push is only marked ‘publish.’
Overall, the concept of time that is understood by editors, producers, reporters, bloggers has been completely transformed from a generation ago. Social media amplifies the effect, giving the public a lever to help shape – and manipulate – the news as its crystallizing.
Singer writes about “The critical 30 minutes” it takes an ICBM to “fly across continents” as being essential to “planning and strategy.”
Because of the digital reality of the internet, the time frame between learning about breaking news and publishing the first take has been reduced from hours – a generation ago – to mere minutes. Or even seconds.
Breaking news from one outlet can trigger almost universal follow-on stories everywhere else. The first mover advantage when the story is breaking is enormous. Search engines reward you. Twitter and Facebook reward you. With high traffic stories translating to revenue from advertisement, media outlets can have a financial incentive to ‘publish first’ that extends past mere professional competition.
That is another reason why when one media outlet has a big story, the pack is likely to pile on quickly, creating what looks like a stampede online.
Of course, there was always fierce competition with media. Today, though, the ability of the masses to shape the terms of the coverage, through repostings, and indeed, their reaction to the news is a novel situation.
In this way, organisations with a disinformation/misinformation agenda along with allied social media players (partisans and trolls, alike) can strongly influence traditional news websites.
The first few minutes between awareness of a new story and the initial draft are prime time for manipulation of the media. As soon as the news story is published online, it begins to crystallize in the audiences imagination. From there, it can be hard to change.
Research indicates readers often remember the incorrect fact, even after the correction has been published.
First impressions have never counted so much.
The Truth doesn’t always win
When you factor into the mix the proliferation of social media the possibilities of manipulating the news become much clearer. The news momentum surges online, bringing expectations for content. A Trump fan describes what happens next:
“Social media has become a source of news in and of itself for the very lazy journalism industry over the last few years. They skim what other people find interesting, put it into 300-700 words or less of boilerplate, and boom, content. Hundreds of millions of people rely on Facebook’s trending column or their Twitter feeds for this kind of news, and some of that news itself is recursively drawn from those trend lists. Nothing has to even happen in the real world … for us to become newsworthy anymore. We just meme things into reality.”
Once the momentum for a story is happening online and on social media, the role of traditional news outlets can be to legitimize, rather than to report an event.
The case of the gruesome Islamic State videos is a good example.
In an earlier time, media would block those images of IS captives in their final moments. These days with the explosion of choice online and social media, the mainstream media’s use of the images ensured they circulated even further.
Unlike the old days, when the media was elite and there was a scarcity of news outlets, today, online, simply refraining from reporting an item doesn’t mean the story dies.
With enough interest, the traffic will simply flow around the site that doesn’t offer the images, to find the one that does. Few editors could afford (literally) to not run still photos of the chilling IS imagery, for example, at least for the first few times it happened.
Russian misinformation exploits a similar swarm dynamic, by marshaling diverse voices to say the same thing – even from contradictory angles – in the process creating what is in effect a brute force attack on reported reality.
Just look at the stories about Hillary Clinton’s health. It first originated years ago in the US around the time of Benghazi hearings. But the meme has had a powerful comeback during the 2016 election, helped by the full force of Russia-backed trolls and media outlets.
It brings to mind the RAND Corporation’s analysis of what they call the “Firehose of Falsehoods” propaganda strategy:
“Russian propaganda is produced in incredibly large volumes and is broadcast or otherwise distributed via a large number of channels. This propaganda includes text, video, audio, and still imagery propagated via the Internet, social media, satellite television, and traditional radio and television broadcasting. The producers and disseminators include a substantial force of paid Internet “trolls” who also often attack or undermine views or information that runs counter to Russian themes, doing so through online chat rooms, discussion forums, and comments sections on news and other websites.
“It may come as little surprise that the psychology literature supports the persuasive potential of high-volume, diverse channels and sources, along with rapidity and repetition. These aspects of Russian propaganda make intuitive sense…This next characteristic, however, flies in the face of intuition and conventional wisdom, which can be paraphrased as ‘The truth always wins.’
“…Why might this disinformation be effective? First, people are often cognitively lazy. Due to information overload (especially on the Internet), they use a number of different heuristics and shortcuts to determine whether new information is trustworthy. Second, people are often poor at discriminating true information from false information—or remembering that they have done so previously.”
Glaring distortions appear to be a common tactic. Consider the DNC Leaks story. A reasonable examination of the facts shows the emails of the Democratic Party weren’t “leaked” but rather, hacked – by Guccifer 2.0, who is thought to be linked to Russia.
Yet the message of the DNC Leaks, we were relentlessly told by WikiLeaks and Russia-backed media, was that it supposedly showed “election fraud.” The reality was the emails showed some Democratic Party insiders were partial to Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders before the nomination process ran its course.
Searches on Hillary’s health
There was inside party favouritism. But that’s not quite the same as outright election fraud, which involves “misrepresentation or alteration of the true results of an election.”
For media to write their stories, they would likely use the “DNCLeaks” hashtag (because it was trending) when publishing it onto social media. This decision reinforced the meme of news that supports Donald Trump (and presumably Russia’s) position – that the US election is somehow rigged.
If the mainstream media wants to buy into the story, they have to use the partisans’ terms.
In the early moments of the breaking news situation, the short window of time media outlets have to match each others stories, even if people pushed back against DNCLeak to call it DNCHack, the sheer volume of partisans, and then innocents, retweeting and posting and titling headlines with “DNCLeak” establish a kind of hegemony of the hashtag.
In this way, debunking and fact-checking is of limited use. As the the Great Communicator said, “If you’re explaining, your losing.”
During a brute force attack on reality, the hope that Truth will always win out seems a bit quaint and wrapped up in the communications technology of the 20th Century.
Ideology part of psychology
The effect of these campaigns is visible today: If Hillary Clinton is not facing a grave, yet hidden disease, why is Western media talking about her health? If Russia is fomenting rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, why does Western media discuss the issue as a populist uprising by local Ukrainians? Did Russia make the first move in destabilizing Ukraine? Or did the US by expanding NATO too close to Russia? Nothing conclusive. Just enough to sow doubts in the mind of the public.
Russia media is adept at getting breaking news stories up online quickly. RT and Sputnik apparently devote considerable resources to their breaking news desks. Sputnik has a direct line to the Kremlin to “discuss secret things”, which could be handy for some stories. The strength of the well reported fact serves the larger cause of foisting ideological distortions and propaganda on Western publics.
Russia-originated fictions migrating into mainstream Western news create doubt about the entire political Western political process. In this way, today’s Russian propaganda draws on a storied history.
The great advance of Russia propaganda in the 20th century was “making ideology part of psychological warfare.”
The landscape of the internet is more fertile for this than the print world. So the arguments – globalized online – are even more seductive to Western publics genuinely searching for answers in a post-growth world.
If you are aggrieved by globalization, you are for nationalism, Russian propaganda says. (The return of nationalism is the supposed takeaway message from Russia’s discussion of the UK’s Brexit), an event which RT and Sputnik backed.
In the 1927, the Communist International’s slogan used to be “Against War, for the Soviet Union”.
See? So if you didn’t want war, then you were implicitly aligned with the Soviet Union, a country that – before fighting Hitler’s Nazis – would first make a pact with them.
Today if you’re fed up with the status quo in the West, then you should be really angry about Hillary Clinton’s actions in Libya, or the fact that the billionaire George Soros supports pro-democracy NGOs in Europe.
The new online reality we all live with means news travels so fast that no one can seem to stop the momentum once it starts. That being the case, governments in the West should fear the effect of propaganda like this. As in past times, when they turned even to jazz to get their message out, today Western governments may have to look for a fresh way to counter efforts that resist traditional fact-checking and accurate reporting.