Since the 2015 US election and 2016 Brexit referendum upsets, foreign influence on democratic elections has become a hot topic. On John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, a segment explained the ease of tampering with voting machines which inspired me to write this article. Before I get into how easy and inexpensive it is to propagate disinformation on the internet, I’d like provide some background on why and how more nations will be entering the digital warfare space in the coming years.
Foundations of Geopolitics, a book drafted by the International Department of the Russian Ministry of Defence back in 1997, paved the way as a philosophical instructions manual for dismantling and dethroning enemies and super-powers alike, with the ultimate aim of “Finlandization” for all of Europe. According to Wikipedia’s summary on the strategy:
“Military operations play relatively little role. The textbook advocates a sophisticated program of subversion, destabilization, and disinformation spearheaded by the Russia special services.”
During the 2015 US election and with a meagre monthly budget of only $1.25M (estimated $15M per year), Russia’s Internet Research Agency was able to deliver the US election to the Republican Party. In terms of return-on-investment (ROI), Russia spends $36M per Mi-35 helicopter. It is no surprise then, that as Russia gains more territory and influence, its actual military spending is decreasing.
Military power is clearly a very costly ongoing expense where destabilization is relatively cheap and plentiful. But how exactly is this done?
Tactic 1: Find The Fractures Then Divide & Conquer
Using the example of the US, this fracturing tactic was exquisitely executed by fuelling instability and actively supporting all dissident groups simultaneously to inflame tensions and divide communities. Enemies of the USA have been fanning the flames of white nationalism, gun rights groups, stoking anti-immigration sentiment and the vilification of refugees and Muslims have been most visible. Yet this only scratches the surface.
But more subtle and vicious domestic attacks have been in support of fringe and other right-wing religious groups attacking women’s reproductive rights, gay marriage equality, homelessness and mental health.
We are seeing generational divisiveness growing between Baby Boomers and Millennials. There is a growing demonization of environmental stewardship (see baseless attacks and other trolling of Greta Thunberg) and attacks on democratically-held values in general.
Long-term, inter-generational damage from the exploitation of these existing divides is seen in the gutting of the US education system, diminishing access to healthcare for all, ballooning deficits that future generations will be saddled down by are just some of the long-term consequences to be felt by this surprisingly inexpensive destabilization warfare technique.
What were once cracks in an overarching national unity have become red line fractures in an artificially created, cold civil war. Many are now asking what was done to exploit these existing social divides?
Tactic 2: Leverage the digital age intersection between behavioural economics, social media loopholes and the relative ease of search engine exploitation
As a digital strategist and online marketer I have observed that many of the tactics available to civilians were modified to be weaponized against competing nations. Boosting social media reach on divisive posts and influencers gave fringe groups a false sense that they held popular yet controversial views.
Social media has a lot of loopholes which I often share to my online marketer followings so they can get more bang for their buck with clients. It’s important to remember social media platforms’ #1 goal is to keep you on the platform as long as possible so they can make ad revenue. They do this by showing you content they think will keep you on just a little bit longer. They are all literally designed at some level to be addictive to us.
I discuss in my marketing content the various exploitation opportunties that trick these social platforms into thinking your content is viral by fooling the algorithm they rely on to distribute to users.
For example, with less than $100 I can buy 10,000 twitter followers, automatically getting 1,000 retweets and favourites on 10 posts. For $100 of paid ads on twitter, you barely get any results. That’s because Twitter under-reports bot activity in order to convince its shareholders that site engagement is increasing. It’s not just Twitter — Facebook, Instagram, Youtube (Google), Snapchat and even Linkedin all have the same fundamental vulnerability. It has become very easy to give false social proof to almost anything.
Humans are hardwired with cognitive biases that are easily and regularly exploited by social media platforms and search engines to make us think that things are more (or less) popular than they truly are. Increasingly we seem to be getting stuck in our own social echo chambers and believe most people see things the same as us.
There were legitimate grievances around the US economy like job losses from globalization and artificial intelligence resulting in increased economic inequality. But US citizens were manipulated and sentiment hijacked by populist narratives of being the victim of the government, elites, experts, Democrats, Mexicans, Muslims, and foreign allies.
Tactic 3: Erode Trust & Global Alliances
What’s worse, not only was the goal achieved to destabilize the US by facilitating the turning of a nation on itself, but also have its internal damage bleed Anti-Americanism into US-global relations. The surprise betrayal of the American-Kurd alliance will have lasting consequences on American credibility, leaving American soldiers and civilians more vulnerable than ever.
France, the first and the oldest international ally of the United States, is now questioning how much it can rely on the US after the abrupt pulling of US forces from Northern Syria without any consultations from NATO partners. As reported by the BBC,
“Russia, which sees Nato as a threat to its security, welcomes the French president’s comments as “truthful words.””
It’s hard to say when exactly this second Cold War started, but one thing is for sure: we’re woefully prepared to defend ourselves from disinformation and have been taught to avoid difficult political conversations.