Daily Brief

Memes, the pandemic and the new tactics of information warfare

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic is evidence that Russia and China have accelerated adoption of their age-old influence and disinformation tactics to the modern era, national security experts and military leaders said.

Those countries are leveraging U.S. laws, social media platforms and divisions within society to their larger strategic advantage and as a way to weaken the United States.

“This pandemic crisis has made it very, very clear that Russia, China and others intend to strategically use cyber-enable information operations against the U.S.,” Lt. Gen. Mary O’Brien, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and cyber effects operations, said during a Joint Service Academy Cybersecurity Conference webinar June 11.

“They’re injecting disinformation, which is not a new concept in itself, but now by incorporating cyber means, they’re reaching millions of people to exacerbate existing tensions within the U.S. and between us, our allies and partners.”

She said these efforts include spreading conspiracy theories and confusing messages about the virus such as its origins and risks.

Such tactics are here to stay.

“Our adversaries have made it very clear that this aspect of strategic competition will be enduring,” O’Brien added.

These tactics, which include waging influence campaigns below the threshold of armed conflict, have forced the military, and U.S. government more broadly, to rethink its strategies and views toward conflict. Traditionally, the United States government has taken a binary view of war and peace, while adversaries such as Russia in particular have viewed conflict on a perpetual continuum.

“In many ways, we have trained ourselves as a service at every Red Flag we’ve gone to that conflict begins when two fighters engage or we find a target on the battlespace. So we’ve really trained ourselves that conflict begins at that moment,” Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh, commander of 16th Air Force, the service’s first information warfare command, said at a July 15 Mitchell Institute webcast. Red Flag is the Air Force’s premier tactical training event.

“Was the first element really when we got into conflict in the information environment … the first day that one of our companies was hacked that the intellectual property theft of one of our weapon systems stole?” he said. “Was that really when conflict began? Was it the day that Russian hackers hacked into the DNC? Was that really the day that conflict began for our nation and how we should be thinking about it when the adversaries went to another level of using some level of malign activity that is outside of things that we would consider norms.”

As such, the military is looking at ways to expose this activity abroad when it can.

“Sixteenth Air Force units are focused on developing tactics, techniques and procedures and they’re looking to identify, expose and when directed, countering the threat from the state sponsored disinformation campaigns,” O’Brien said. “This is continuing, I think we’ll see it again as we address the racial discrimination.”

Adversaries have exploited U.S. laws and principles, such as the freedom of speech with online platforms, which makes outright banning accounts difficult. They’ve also targeted existing divisions within society such as protests over police tactics and racial equality.

“[Adversaries] also are in a position where they can take advantage of a lot of the disinformation/misinformation that’s created right here at home in the United States by actual Americans who understand the language in a way Moscow couldn’t at a native level,” Cindy Otis, vice president of analysis at Alethea Group, a start-up that counters disinformation and social media manipulation. told C4ISRNET.

Experts explained that adversaries in many cases don’t have to create content, although many choose to.

“At the end of the day they’re really just amplifying our existing social divisions. We suspect, especially lately, that they’ve really done enough amplification that they’re just kind of allowing things to snowball now …There’s enough existing division that it really only requires tiny nudges at this point to amplify,” Maj. Jessica Dawson, research lead for information warfare and an assistant professor at the Army Cyber Institute, told C4ISRNET.

One way they do this is called memetic warfare, which involves sharing memes on various social media platforms to stoke a particular reaction from various groups.

“When we think about memetic warfare, what’s really happening is we’re taking these sort of deep seeded emotional stories and we’re collapsing them down into a picture, usually it’s something that has a very, very quick emotional punch,” she said. “They’re collapsing these narratives down into images that are often not attributed, that’s one of the things about memes is they really aren’t, someone usually isn’t signing them, going ‘I’m the artist.' There [are] these really emotional punches that are shared very, very quickly, they’re self replicating in a lot of ways because you see it, you react and then you immediately pass it on.”

While many experts noted that these tactics are nothing new, the difference is the internet.

“The major change throughout history is today they’re able to spread and amplify and reach people where they are all over the world in a way that was never possible before,” Otis, who previously was a CIA analyst, said.

Previously, nations such as the Soviet Union had to prop up media outlets and place stories in newspapers around the world hoping they’d be picked up in English language outlets. Now, they just have to tweet.

In some cases, they are overt social media channels and actors might not even hide their origin, but other more covert cases, states might use certain influencers or cut outs to do their bidding.

What’s the point?

The goal of these operations varies slightly, but experts said they serve the ultimate purpose of put down the United States compared to their own nations.

“For Russia it all goes back to the desire to undermine United States’ global credibility but also show their own population ‘hey, you know that democracy you want, it’s actually not a great thing … look how it’s turning out for the United States,‘” Otis said.

She added that Russia tries to undermine the credibility of the United States on issues such as human rights, something the United States is active in promoting on the world stage, by highlighting social divisions such as potential police brutality and racial injustice.

Dawson noted this can also distract from what Russia is doing abroad.

Russia also wants to discourage citizens from voting, Otis said by making large swaths of the population feel disenfranchised. Often times, these actors will play both sides of an issue to maximize reach and discord.

When it comes to China, Dawson noted that they are trying to appear more benevolent on the world stage to present itself as a world power, which is much harder. They are also good at making information disappear online, she said, citing information on the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Otis pointed to Chinese benevolent efforts such as providing medical aid to nations such as Italy during the ongoing pandemic.

Combating these efforts, including those focused internally at domestic populations and undermining government, can be difficult given the existing divisions within society and the broad speech freedoms guaranteed.

Otis explained that the government can sometimes be mired in its own bureaucratic processes, noting it can be its own worst enemy.

She provided the example of Taliban forces in Afghanistan publishing in their media channels that the United States and NATO forces bombed a school killing scores of children. Those stories would go viral in their circles and sometimes make their way to mainstream outlets. When questioned about those claims by reporters, U.S. officials would explain they have to conduct an investigation, which could take months. By the time the investigation is concluded and the claim is found to hold no truth, the damage is already done and the Taliban have successfully recruited against it.

Dawson noted that one way to begin combating disinformation is building trust from the local to the national level while also addressing the underlying domestic problems adversaries are exploiting from abroad.

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