Information war and propaganda: a brute force attack on reality

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.

There’s the data. You have minutes to decide. (National Archives)

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.

A different pace of news  in past – legendary editor Harold Hayes (

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.”

Hashtag hegemony

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.”

Even the hashtag “DNCLeaks” is incorrect. But in the initial push from the partisans and trolls (and WikiLeaksand WikiLeaks) to get the story online, “DNCLeaks” was the hashtag.

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.

Another way to communicate: Brubeck in Krakow (U of the Pacific)

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.

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Hillary Clinton makes a splash on Chinese hacking

US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s blunt words on China’s hacking, as reported by Reuters:

[Clinton] accused China on Saturday of stealing commercial secrets and “huge amounts of government information,” and of trying to “hack into everything that doesn’t move in America.”

They’re also trying to hack into everything that doesn’t move in America. Stealing commercial secrets … from defense contractors, stealing huge amounts of government information, all looking for an advantage.

What’s remarkable is how forthright her words were on this one topic. Compared to her vacillating views on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, she came down hard and fast on China’s hacking. Of course, it’s a no-brainer in a way, as Hillary won’t face Chinese national voters in the election. She will face voters who have a strong case of ambivalence about the worth of free trade deals.

Clinton’s views on China’s no doubt were informed by her time as Secretary of State. Industrial espionage via the internet is also an issue close to the heart of corporate America. Nonetheless, her comments were a rare bit of straight talk by the famously hard-to-pin down politician.

Six reasons why what’s un-American may become a campaign issue in 2016

Every culture has its idiosyncrasies. One unique feature of America’s is periodic episodes of hysteria over foreign influence, a remarkable trait considering the country is a nation of immigrants. The issue of what is essentially American or un-American crops ups from time to time. It can be mingled with xenophobia and racism, like some of the crude mania about US President Barack Obama’s supposed Muslim foreignness. Part of the political backlash over Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign speech delivered to the US congress (with no consultation with the White House) has sparked this mini-debate about who American Jews should be supporting, the President of the United States, or the Prime Minister of Not the United States, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Within that debate, there are shades of the age-old issue of loyalty and Americanism. The US, as an open society, has been receptive to the range of ideas and influences from around the world. This is part of its strength. But when those ideas and figures from abroad sow fears among the population, like during the Cold War, a backlash is possible.

The trend since the end of the Cold War has been for the more right-wing pundits to see the left in the US as the Other, who are deserving of cynicism and scorn and scrutiny. This goes right back to the generational psychodrama of the Republicans versus the Administration of Bill Clinton.

Since then, the effects of globalization have dug deeper into the US. Long-term geopolitical rivals have resurfaced, such as Russia, and new ones have emerged, such as China, which has never been so strong in the time of the US’s existence. Their quiet but pervasive influence may suddenly emerge as a political issue in the US in surprising ways.

The list below details possible motives for another period in which the concept of American loyalty rises to prominence and becomes part of the of the US political vocabulary.

1. US-Israel relations

A petition on the progressive organizing website MoveOn is pursuing treason charges against the 47 Republican senators who signed the letter to Iran’s leaders suggesting a deal on Iran’s nuclear program could be nullified in the next Congress.

“By his inviting a foreign leader to address Congress, John Boehner deliberately dealt in foreign policy and thus violated the “Logan Act”, thus usurping the powers of the presidency of the United States,” the petition reads.

On a related note, there is continued fallout of the Netanyahu-Republican axis to undermine the President of the United States. Both of these issues are important, because they speak to an area of the world where the US has sacrificed much blood and treasure for little gain. And the Middle East is an area many Americans have a general view and awareness of.

2. Basic technology

American culture, like its government, was forged in a time of the printed word. We are now in the time of electronic media and the internet, where vastly different locations are linked side-by-side online. People online can organize themselves along single issues much easier, in the process, reinforcing the depth of their own commitment to and identification with a cause. It has engendered excess ideological division and polarization – this is happening in many democracies (in Britain, small parties have replaced the large as the building blocks in coalitions, in Australia, social media has made successive ruling governments structurally unstable). The topic of loyalty – framed as ‘does this view or action benefit this nation?’ could be the first step in the political adjustment to this online reality.

3. Hillary Clinton’s finances

Another possible factor that could propel loyalty forward as a campaign issue would be Hillary Clinton’s finances. In a globalized world voters would want to be assured her financial advantage is not supplemented by foreign money. That’s why Republicans and Democrats have questioned the relationship between foreign donors to the Clinton-run charity and the politics of Hillary Clinton. As the WSJ notes: “The foundation’s efforts in health care, economic development and opportunity for women and girls are being touted by Mrs. Clinton as she prepares to embark on a campaign for the presidency.”

And what’s true for Hillary would likely be true for all. Junkets from foreign nations for candidates, funds from foreign governments flowing to influential American thinktanks, any hint of favors to foreign leaders. It brings the issue of globalization, and the role of the elites, front and centre in a campaign that is going to be focus on economic justice.

4. #CalgaryCruz

cruzThe Texas Senator was not born in the US and is running for the presidency. Setting aside the actually legalities of Cruz’s case, it will drag the issue of a foreign-born politician, and thus foreign-influence, onto the national radar.

5. Russian propaganda

Kremlin-centric networks such as Sputnik and RT offer an endless supply of news pointing out division and shortcomings in the US. Their cynicism is in fact the common denominator in much of the news choice. Should it dawn on Americans that the point of these networks is to weaken the US and exacerbate divisions, it could sharpen the domestic suspicion of outsiders seeking to change opinion at home.

6. China’s soft-power outreach

China, too, is coordinating with US media to push a soft-power message to mid-America, through a co-production with the Discovery Channel. This even as the crackdown on dissent and the undisguised challenge to American power abroad continues apace. “What is quite funny is that Discovery Channel is saying it’s a documentary,” Jeremy Goldkorn, of Beijing-based Danwei was quoted by AFP. “If Discovery Channel think there’s no politics involved in this, they are kidding themselves.” It’s clear both the US government and business have nowhere near the access to China’s citizens as China’s government will get through this Discovery Channel deal, or the CCTV programming in the US.

The upshot? If this scenario played out – and that’s a big if – it could mark the end of the Great Diffusion in American politics that coincided with the years of dominance of free market globalization and the introduction of the internet. In the US, a newfound priority (or low-level hysteria, more likely) concerning US loyalty could have a galvanizing effect. It could mark the moment when the political reality within the US begins to catch up with the political reality outside the US, the one in which the US is no longer the hyper-power at the world’s center. It would be the reality where the subtle means of the media are used against the US – and the US political class may begin to have to look outward rather than inward for enemies.

The Chinese warn the US on comments over the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands

Naturally the Chinese respond to the reiterated US support of Japan with a warning.

From China Daily.

“We urge the US side to adopt a responsible attitude in regard to the issue of the Diaoyu Islands. It should be careful with its words, and act and maintain regional peace, stability and the general situation of China-US relations with practical actions and build credit with the Chinese people,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

But let’s cut to the chase. Here’s the part where after some diplomatic-ese, the tone turns.

“The comments by the US side are ignorant of facts and indiscriminate of rights and wrongs,” Qin said.

It’s never clear to me if the tone-shift is a matter of Chinese-English translation or the jarring contrast between equanimous tone and the brass-tacks is intended. Needless to say, there is little sign of the tensions easing over this.