11 February 2020

Disinformation- the modern age weapon

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Political technologies’ globalization is one of the recent phenomena that mark a new phase in using online communication tools to send political messages and influence possible voters. Studies show that the technological progress also brings new challenges in the political and social sphere, that not always states with strong economies are also the ones to use the most these technologies, that disinformation operations became one of the asymmetrical counter methods used by authoritarian regimes.

Image source: Mediafax

Social media- “progress’s curse”

Analysts studying online communication phenomena, its impact on social relations changes, are trying to figure it out how public influence operations, however not all having ideological confrontation meanings, are convincing their targets to buy certain products, to vote certain parties, or change their political options.

  • Some authoritarian states saw this field as a resource to promote campaigns for such regimes in,  to silence their own dissidents, but also the foreign ones;
  • Even if they do not possess the technological resource that some developed democratic states have, authoritarian states are using the available human resource, as well as the facilities offered by social media, to multiply the messages they want;
  • Such example is Russia, where social media is used to increase Kremlin’s image promotion campaigns outside its borders, but also to direct some foreign electoral processes to candidates and parties which have positive relations with Moscow;
  • Disinformation/ influence campaigns are not only East versus West, because lately these are also directed towards the South, less-developed states, politically and economically weaker, however richer in natural resources needed by the West and the East;
  • Just like there is a global economic order, the new developments and technological processes, but particularly the aggressive way to use such political technologies, have also created a “global disinformation order”, and the scene is not occupied following the same order as the economic capabilities’ scene;
  • Although developments in online communication field are normally regarded as influencing our daily life positively, the excessive use of this field can also change our personal and public options, our capacity to act in terms of our personal beliefs, the “seizure” of this space, in different moments, by demagogic or semi-factual speeches, also has negative effects.

Maybe this is why this field’s processes are, sometimes, turning on communication per se, modifying the truth, replacing the social reality with a virtual one. Such developments were defined as “progress’s curse”, an unexpected consequence for a field that has developed quickly, however being used for objectives that were not considered by those who discovered online communication.

Following the Cold War, new technologies for new days

Recent history showwed us how social media has created the “orange revolution” in Ukraine or the “Arab Spring” and had a positive role in the political changes that occurred afterwards. Political technologies have worked, in such cases, for the democracy, for those aiming at change.

But there were also opposed examples of social media use, like influencing the US elections or the 2016 referendum from Great Britain.

The Hate speech became the technology used in social media and Russia had a word to say in this matter.

Social media democratization’s effects were, from the very beginning, a hope, which soon became jut an illusion, thanks to its use to negatively influence the social developments, to encourage disunion and hatred.

A decade started under the Arab revolutions on Facebook ends with the authoritarianism of a unilateral approach, wherein social media messages became a tool from a complex social media influence system for electoral or political objectives.

Therefore, the political technologies enter the online space, a term used in electoral campaigns, however, conceptually speaking, being closer to Cold War’s concepts, which were referring to the use of a specific tool to manipulate, to identify and use population’s control methods, the messages addressed to it as the Centre wanted it.

Time has changed and the political technologies have, now, tolls which were not initially planned for political purposes, such as social media, but which can profoundly affect the political environment.

These tools can lead to:

-supporting the effective governments or;

-disputing the current political order;

-develop monitoring and control capabilities;

- get funds and donations (especially by disputing political groups).

These tools are available both for state and non-state actors. This is why the discussion turns extremely interesting when they analyse the use of such political technologies internationally, the “democratization” of its use, the consequences produced when non-state actors decide to utilize them.

According to a report of Oxford Internet Institute, in 2017, 28 countries have recorded attempts of social media manipulation for political purposes, meanwhile, in 2019, the number got to more than 70. Hence, all elections held on the African continent in 2019 had social media interventions, some of them resulting in armed violence.

There is a bias that in order to use political technologies, one must have exceptional knowledge, very well trained professional people to do very sophisticated things, consequently, only states could execute such operations. The reality shows that, in this area too, it can be repeated the story of "Kalashnikov – the wonder machine", a cheap, reliable weapon that can be used without knowing too much, by anyone. Because beyond anything else, just like AKM, social media is accessible to everyone.

It is an evolution similar to using drones, which 10 years ago were a luxury and a sign of the future, and can, now, be purchased at any corner of the street. Of course, not the very performing ones, but that moment is not far either.

The personal computer that becomes a public good

Not everything that is political technology is a disinformation tool. Political intelligence operations are common and have clear public objectives and only those that intentionally promote false information as part of what we call disinformation. Although for the public eye almost everything that is connected with political promotion activities has a negative connotation, things are not actually like that, as there is regularity in terms of the promotion measures for programs, parties, visions, personalities. This also applies to the sensitive field, of public information operations.

Definitely, of all, the most spectacular, and the politicians would say that even the most necessary, are the operations carried out to get votes and, finally, win the elections. These operations can track not only the voting options, which are process’ purpose, but also stances on the voting participation/abstention.

The paradox is that these technologies have been perfected in a state like as Russia, where the political and electoral system does not, at least not publicly, involve a laborious electoral investigation on who will be the winner.

One explanation is that political influence is not used only to win votes. There may be other goals along the way. For example, in relation to minorities, not only ethnic or religious, there may be specific objectives, to exacerbate relations with the majority, to divert attention from other problems. Or, perhaps, to support their integration, at best.

The working areas of political technologies are also different:

● physical - the classical one, of political actions already practiced: demonstrations, public challenges (which, of course, can also be supported or organized from the outside);

● digital - where cyber technologies are used, where digital information is, where the Internet, social media, huge amount of information about everyone and everything is;

● Cognitive - the personal space of political and social ideas, data and knowledge held by individuals.

The current studies are focused on the fusion of solutions in both digital and cognitive fields, for the benefit of political technologies. Since there is politics, there have been influence operations. The new quality of the process is given by the large, even huge, amount of information available to those who have to carry out these operations, and who just have to build the right algorithm for influencing individuals and masses. Another novelty is that the digital field allows access to personal data, to personal options (cognitive domain), previously inaccessible.  

The personal computer transmits to all other users’ data about how you think, what preferences you have, who you are, with both weaknesses and strengths, thus being just like an open book, with all the pages turning public for those who need your vote, your reaction to a political or electoral impulse, perhaps your silence too.

Those who can use the political technologies on a large scale and carry out influence operations are, at this moment, the state structures, the states themselves, because most of the resources are there. And the states are competing, and it is mainly a competition for resources and conscience. States need the knowledge and use of this space because it allows them both influence and protection operations.

Anonymous, non-notified, anything and anywhere

Such operation involves a series of phases and participants:

  1. The issuer- who has a certain interest s/he wants to achieve by sending a message to the
  2. Receiver – the target who may have the ability to accomplish that objective.

Between them, there is a process of:

  1. communication, through social media, Internet, not  necessarily explicit, but supporting issuer’s message, which has;
  2. a finality, by convincing the receiver to adopt a certain decision, to act as the issuer wants.

It seems a complicated process, even to a certain extent, but, in the end, it is about using all information about the target to execute an indirect attack against it, physically, on social networks, to convince it to have a certain conduct, to adopt certain public positions.

Therefore, disinformation operations are almost a natural product, because it is difficult to differentiate between what is legitimate in using the digital domain to convince operations’ subjects and what is illegitimate. The most natural and obvious difference is that misinformation gives false information instead of the truth. But even political projects are not true until they become realities.

For a long time, the rudest falsifications are also the most credible, and manipulation operations are based on the release of incredible information, which can overturn everything that is known in a certain field. Not always, these disinformation campaigns try to convince masses to believe in something, most of the time, they are convinced not to trust anyone anymore, to mix their values ​​and perspectives.

For totalitarian as well as authoritarian regimes, this information flow must be controlled, stopping any external influences. The specialized state(s) is/are the one(s) that must send the messages. This cycle or process has its limitations in these regimes because they do not allow "intruders".

In order to keep the situation under control, these regimes limit access to the Internet, create parallel social networks and invent autonomous online universes.

All to keep internal credibility. These regimes must have a permanent "service culprit" for internal negative aspects. This "culprit of service" cannot be created overnight, as it is a construction of historical, political, unilateral long-term propaganda that has a prepared answer for each potential daily challenge.

In the "Russian propaganda school", one of the directions to be followed is providing partial information to recipients, who are subsequently involved in completing what is missing, usually a minor aspect. In this way, the recipient has the feeling that he understood the problem by himself, without realizing that he becomes an agent of propaganda slogan promotion. This is based on people’s predictability, on the fact that they act according to customs, which, if known, can get external truths, finally obtaining the desired result.

Thanks to these information / disinformation operations, a new reality is created, which people accept, because most of the information comes from internal sources, from online networks, which covers with a virtual blanket the other, true reality, which tends to fade. Being "detached" from the concrete reality, going only after what is communicated online, people are easier to manipulate, and their options become easier to change.

Also from the Russian disinformation operations school  one can quote the following saying, identified by a former Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Intelligence, Tatiana Popova: "The current informational warfare can be carried on uninterrupted, anonymously and unannounced, in any information space, including on foreign territory. The object of the attack is opponent’s cultural space, his consciousness, and may last as long as the opponent is not aware that he is under attack".

Seven states - a common preference

And now some data and conclusions from the most recent report on the information/ disinformation operations conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute, published in September 2019, called "The global misinformation order":

● The social media manipulation campaigns increased as number of countries from 28, in 2017, to 48, in 2018, and to 70, in 2019. In these countries, at least one political party or state agency used social media to create public internal opinions;

● Social media has become an associated/“co-opted” work tool by many authoritarian regimes. In 26 countries, "computational propaganda" has been used as a tool for controlling information in three directions: cancellation of fundamental human rights, discrediting political opponents, silence

● A quite small number of state actors, with a sophisticated development in the field, uses online propaganda for external influence operations. Facebook and Twitter appreciated that seven states have used this type of operation, aimed at a wider or global international audience: China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela;

● China has become a major player in this new global disinformation order. Until the Hong Kong protests in 2019, Chinese disinformation operations were running on domestic online platforms - Weibo, WeChat and QQ. But China's increased interest has also captured Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, which could/should be a signal for targeted democracies;

● Despite the multiplication of online social platforms, more now than ever, Facebook remains the first choice for online manipulation. This was identified in 56 of analyzed countries.

Political technologies that use the online space can play a positive role in educating the population to better understand their rights and obligations, to defend their individual freedoms, combat authoritarian manifestations. But what can we do when the same technologies are used even by some states’ authorities wherefore the individual or collective rights are being interpreted according to a political or oligarchic elite agenda? How can the use of the online space be countered to influence or be influenced, instead of being, like, normally, used to communicate and be aware of the reality?

Such answers come from the society, the same that, at certain level, is being revolted when authoritarian users of this space are crossing the red line which separate truth from false.

Unfortunately, this is not happening as often as it would probably be necessary to keep a democratic, transparent online space, cleaned form propagandistic excesses.

Translated by Andreea Soare