Sunday, December 31, 2017

Readings in cognitive warfare at the societal level — #8:

I’ve learned, thanks to a negative article in The Nation (see below), that a lawsuit has been underway regarding whether or not individuals (e.g., Roger Stone) affiliated with the Trump campaign colluded with Russians. I’ve long thought that “collusion” was an awfully strong word, and I’ve never thought that “collusion” was the precise problem. There are lots of ways short of deliberate collusion whereby Russians may wield influence and Americans may go along with being influenced (as prior readings in this series attest).

As for that lawsuit, fourteen former high-ranking US intelligence and national-security officials, listed alphabetically from former CIA Director John Brennan to former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, have filed an amicus brief as part of the lawsuit. They wrote it not to take sides but to be sure the court understood “whether and how Russia uses local actors inside a country to facilitate disinformation campaigns.”

Their key point is that Russian foreign policy has for decades deployed “a category of activities known as “active measures”, most of which do not require deliberate collusion by the target. Here’s how the brief describes “active measures”:
“Active measures campaigns encompass a range of activities that include written or spoken disinformation, the spreading of conspiracy theories, efforts to control the media, the use of forgeries, political influence campaigns, the funding of extremist and opposition groups, and cyberattacks. Across history, the Russians have adapted their strategy as technology and circumstances have changed. The geopolitical landscape has shifted over the years, but the overarching objectives largely have been the same — to undermine confidence in democratic leaders and institutions; sow discord between the United States and its allies; discredit candidates for office perceived as hostile to the Kremlin; influence public opinion against U.S. military, economic and political programs; and create distrust or confusion over sources of information.”
The brief further observes that Russian active-measures ops are now managed differently, making them even more effective and difficult to counter than during Soviet times:
“In the last several years in particular, Putin has invested in active measures with considerable success. One change in these activities under Putin — compared to the Soviet precedent—is that although they continue to receive specific direction from state authorities, they are now executed through decentralized networks, creating what one expert has described as a “multidirectional brush-fire-information-warfare campaign.” However, easily the most significant change in these operations in the Putin era has been Russia’s capitalization on the emergence of social media platforms, which has unleashed a new, virulent strain of these influence campaigns.”
The brief then teaches how new social-media technologies and platforms have served as force multipliers for Russian information operations:
“Social media offers the Russian active measure operation a number of amplifying advantages, including misattribution, direct access to an audience, rapid and targeted dissemination, all at a relatively low cost. They can effortlessly assume the appearance of a U.S. speaker, target disinformation to particular audiences, quickly test the effectiveness of the messages, and use social “bots” and other modes of automation to multiply their reach dramatically. These features have helped the Kremlin to seamlessly combine white, gray and black operations as never before — for instance, by hacking information from private accounts and then pushing the information in real and altered form into disinformation campaigns that rapidly spread across the world. This new generation of active measure activities is deliberate, well-funded, and wide ranging, and represents a massive escalation of previous initiatives in scope and effect.”
Finally, the brief focuses on Russian “reliance on intermediaries or ‘cut outs’ inside a country to facilitate active measure campaigns.” According to the authors’ knowledge and experience, these intermediaries may include “political organizers and activists, academics, journalists, web operators, shell companies, nationalists and militant groups, and prominent pro-Russian businessmen.” Some may be involved as an “unwitting accomplice”, others as an “ideological or economic ally”, still others as “the knowing agent”. In sum, the brief warns, “Russia has a practice of using local actors inside a country as a key tool in its “active measures” operations.”

A concluding point is that “The threat posed to our democracy by Russian active measures campaigns is serious, ongoing and will require vigilance on the part of the U.S. government and people.” For this reason, the authors hope their brief helps in “raising awareness across the U.S. legislative, executive and judicial branches, as well as the media and civil society, about how Russia engages in sophisticated influence campaigns”.

To read, go here:


I learned of this brief by happening across James Carden’s ominous article “Russiagate Is Devolving Into an Effort to Stigmatize Dissent” (2017) in The Nation. The article worries that the brief “raises troubling questions over the right to political speech.” Carden concludes that “the Russia-Trump collusion narrative is fast devolving into an effort to stigmatize and marginalize expressions of dissent, with the overarching aim of short-circuiting and stifling debate over US-Russia policy.” I doubt that — partly because, as I noted above, the “collusion narrative” is not the key worry — but I’m grateful to the article for pointing me to the brief. It didn’t make much news otherwise.

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