When you are in the midst of a major geopolitical event sometimes you see it – sometimes you don’t. At the moment domestic American politics are covering up a story which began years ago and which the media is actually trying to cover (see, I can say nice things about the media). But that media coverage is getting as little public traction as the initial investigative reporting on the CIA related aspect of Benghazi did, to some extent because the context is simply outside most people’s experience. Beyond that the implications are such that its much more comfortable to ignore it – if you accept it you have to do more work, maybe even gossip less and what fun is that.
I can only skim the surface in blogging on it but the basic point is that the advent of the internet as the general public’s primary news source represents a tremendous opportunity for those parties who choose to use it for psychological warfare. To a large extent the United States pioneered the concept of using media as a psychological warfare tool in the early 1950 – primarily focused on radio and to a lesser extent physical mail. I’ve written about one of the CIA’s most famed practitioners, David Phillips, who mastered the art of counter spin – planting news stories that the government would rightly deny but which were spun with just enough truth that the public would assume it was true because the government was denying it. His techniques contributed to the fall of at least one Latin American government.
The British had practiced certain elements even earlier, their specialty was inserting faked documents and leaked diplomatic communications inside third countries in a manner that they would be discovered and influence the target country. In one particular instance it worked beautifully, with the United States as the country being targeted.
At the moment, Putin’s Russia has become an active practitioner of psychological warfare, in an evolved fashion, taking full advantage of the public nature of the internet. Russia is carrying out its current campaign at both a strategic and a tactical level. The internet campaign is also being beautifully orchestrated by synchronizing it with the editorial controlled content of various stories inserted via Russian press outlets and its RT television network.
These stories are picked up on the internet and become embedded in internet media outlets – where they are less obvious – and then are repeated both by individuals and at the moment by Donald Trump. He represents a perfect target for psychological warfare as he clearly gets most of his news off the internet but from a limited set of internet sources that seem eager to pass on material that in some instances can be traced back to Russian media stories. Several recent instances of this have even been noted in the media, revealed in their fact checking coverage. The way the Russian psychwar folks are managing this is truly brilliant, David Phillips would have to admire it.
But there are much more advanced efforts in play as well, taking advantage of open source news and the ability to use hackers to obtain and then – either anonymously (or via faked identities) – plant either actual content, whether it be actual emails or possibly even documents. All this is relatively inexpensive – and allows Russian govt hackers to take advantage lone wolf, independent Russian and Eastern European hackers/hacker groups already in operation for financial purposes – using them and their servers as covers.
The next phase is obvious – they begin taking real hacked emails, tweak them appropriately and leak them. Or, even more aggressively, inserting them into real world email exchanges – the potential for for generating confusion as well as organizational hate and discontent is immense.
As I said, it a big and complex subject, and one that all of us who rely on the internet would prefer to avoid because it suggests we have to put in a lot more work and a lot more diligence on where we get our information. And if you think I’m still being alarmist or just making this stuff up, check out the following links: