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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DNCLeaks justified because, well, I can’t vote in US: Julian Assange

Anderson Cooper’s expression says it all.

In fact, I’ve included a screen shot of the CNN host’s face as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said publishing the Democratic National Committee’s email was justified because he was an Australian and Australia is a close ally of the US, but Australians don’t get to vote (in US elections.)

Anyway, the transcript is below as well as the link to the exchange: The fun starts at the 13 minute mark.


Anderson Cooper: To Americans watching this now who agree with the US government or who are angry that you published this information right before the Democratic National Convention, what is your argument? What do you say to them – That they feel you are interfering with the US election?

Julian Assange: I think that’s a fair question…We are funded by the public. We have a number of Americans who work for our organisation. Most of our readers and most of our donors in the public are in the United States so we have a connection to the United states. Personally, do I have a connection to the United States? Yes, of course because as an Australian, Australia is in the US alliance in a very significant manner but Australians don’t get a chance to vote.

Anderson Cooper: So it’s still the question of anger that you’re interfering in the US election, you say… that your readers are American and so therefore it’s okay?

Julian Assange: Well, it’s what our readers demand. It is also our basic principles that the publication of the true information and that’s an important qualifier. True information about modern human institutions allows us to understand what they’re doing and therefore to reform them. If we don’t understand what our institution are doing we have no hope to reform them whatsoever.

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Snowden, Wikileaks, Russia, China: What’s really going on

Three broad things going on here.

1) Yes, there are legitimate concerns about a security state overreach in the US, particularly after September 11. Conservatives and libertarians spend a lot of time bemoaning the growth of government. The prospect of government growing in secret, creating a chilling effect on free speech, eroding people’s privacy, subjecting them to endless, illegal search is something to be worried about. In this regard, the recent debates in congress, with pledges of real reform to come, are needed.

2) But on the flip side, there is something about the nature of the internet that fuels conspiracy theories. Moreover, the internet, which can bring people together, creates a highly personalized experience of the world. It’s self-reflexive. If you look for tyranny, tyranny is fed back to you. If you look for hot rod enthusiasts, hot rod enthusiasts are fed back to you. It’s worth considering this point when thinking about Julian Assange and to a lesser extent Ed Snowden. Alex Jones (pictured) is an example of the popularity of conspiracy in this age: Alex-Jones-005.jpg (640×360)

Assange and Snowden see the world through a single prism of individual liberty. In Snowden’s case, it’s very much the American libertarian variety which has reshaped US politics in recent years, and is the subject of a big debate today among Republicans – notably between Rand Paul and Chris Christie. Much of this debate would be lost on Assange, who also espouses a libertarian in cyberspace philosophy.

Seeing the world through this online prism allows people like Snowden and Assange, both of whom have grown up on the internet, to look past all other issues. Assange, who I believe, hasn’t spent much time in the US, would probably be surprised to learn of the philosophical link between crumbling bridges, failing schools in the US, criminally lax regulation of US corporations and libertarianism.

Likewise, with Snowden free to wander Russia, he will no doubt get a good look at an individual’s freedom there. It’s a shame Snowden and Assange’s followers, looking at the world through the single prism of data leakers and those who
prosecute them, can’t see the wider picture of the countries involved.

But here are some key terms to look up: Magnitsky, Navalny, Gays in Russia, NGOs in Russia, Stern Hu, Tang HuiChen Guangcheng, Stern Hu, among many others.

I doubt if the desire for privacy and transparency on the part of Snowden and Assange will have an effect in places like China and Russia that they do in the US. This takes me to point three.

3) If Snowden and Assange stand for freedom why are countries like Russia and China, which have much worse records on rights than the US, acting as a platform for these guys? You don’t have to look too far back in history to see why. Whoever Snowden and Assange are for the West, for the East they are what are known as
“useful idiots.” That is, their zeal for the cause, leads them to advance the
goals of a vastly different political interest, much as the left intelligentsia did during the Cold War.

Just today a Russian communist party described Snowden as a hero who was “like a balm to the hearts of all Russian patriots.”

It’s really something to reflect on.

Just as the US has ramped up pressure on China to stop stealing US trade secrets, the Chinese are handed the gift of Snowden. Now discussion of economic cyber theft is muddled. In Russia, the domestic message is that the “CIA and the FBI violate human rights just like everybody else.” But that doesn’t mean, they are like a Russian police state. As a friend explained, although the US is the bad guy, it doesn’t mean Russia and China are good guys.

… I imagine there will be more non-state actors like Wikileaks, and blinkered libertarians like Snowden in coming years. But if there are, let’s have some clarity about real purposes and who is using who.

These seem to be the three separate parts to what’s going on in the news today: Post-9/11 surveillance state excesses, conspiracy theory comic book morality, and the co-opting and subverting of idealists from one country to advance the propaganda goals of another.

Snowden’s quotes from Hong Kong

Dissident whistleblower/leaker Edward Snowden has some choice comments about US hacking. He told the South China Morning Post that there had been “more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland.”

But his direct quotes are more striking.

“We hack network backbones – like huge internet routers, basically – that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” he said.

“Last week the American government happily operated in the shadows with no respect for the consent of the governed, but no longer. Every level of society is demanding accountability and oversight.”

Snowden said he was releasing the information to demonstrate “the hypocrisy of the US government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries”.

Yes, Ed but the question is: does the US government hack the latest model of Lenovo computer and hand it over to HP? Is the US government hacking the latest jet fighter made in China and giving the plans to Northrop for Northrop to copy and bootleg? That is the question. Is the NSA finding out how much the Chinese are paying for rare-earth materials and giving the pricing information to Apple?

The most revealing quote, I think, is this:

Asked if he had been offered asylum by the Russian government, he said: “My only comment is that I am glad there are governments that refuse to be intimidated by great power”

Snowden must have been really busy at work at the NSA. So busy in fact, that he didn’t have time to check in how the freedom of expression and privacy were faring for the people of Russia and in China. It just rings false, really false.

But it also rings delusional. Snowden, like Assange, seems to view the US government as “Matrix.” (I mean that, as in the movie, Matrix.) “Prism” is an ironic word. And both Snowden and Assange can only do this, if there were some level of openness and publicity to them.

Everything else falls into place. The great-half-seen conspiracy, with the supremacy of the individual at the center, and the justification for any act that unmasks the system.

So, ironically, for the openness and accountability the US system does afford, it is treated as a global conspiracy. This is certainly true with Assange. This tweet keeps coming to mind:

That is, there is simply no other factor or criterion in assessing a country’s relationship with the US. Not trade, not human rights, not history. Only one thing: the Wikileaks issue. Prism, indeed.

With Snowden, however, his motives might be a lot more old-fashioned.