In proving its destructive capability during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, Information Warfare (IW), or the act of deliberately spreading false or misleading information so as to subvert an adversary’s trust in its sources, is emerging as an effective tool for promoting targeted political influence. Whilst classed as such, it is not always treated with the same respect other forms of warfare are given, primarily because it does not directly risk lives and produces effects that fall somewhere between regular diplomatic business and a conventional war. Information Warfare is a rather broad term, reaching across the realms of cyber, television, radio and other communications systems that can have the data they produce corrupted and manipulated to a desired effect. Perhaps the most alarming component to information warfare is that anyone can be considered a combatant, as Heather Conley from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) pointed out in stating “the battlespace is public opinion.” With this in mind, the potential dangers of weaponised information need to be continually promoted and made aware of widely, and people with access to an internet connection regardless of any socio-economic or age factors need to be mindful of their own power and ability to identify and navigate the vast information landscape.
Though official definitions vary, information warfare (IW) can be defined as the deliberate corruption, manipulation, denial of information or false material through the provisions of various data-providing platforms including the internet and mass media. CSIS classes information warfare as a ‘gray zone’ due to its ambiguous basis. This ‘gray zone’ refers to measures and strategies that exist outside the limits of conventional war-fighting and associated strategy, as well as those ethical boundaries defined through international accords such as the Geneva Conventions. Often executed in one of the various styles of cyber-attack, IW is effective because the methods utilised are often plausibly deniable, cost-effective and easy to carry out, as was seen in the Russian interference during the 2016 Presidential elections.
Patterns first emerged in late 2015 through the provision of allied intelligence sources. Due to limitations on the ability for US intelligence agencies to surveil their citizens without warrant, the British GCHQ spotted patterns of interaction between individuals connected to Trump and Russian agents following routine surveillance on known Russian assets. Throughout the course of its influence campaign, Russian operatives working inside the US as well as back home in Russia for troll farms, including the notorious Internet Research Agency, opted to use social media platforms including Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram as a source of spreading and fomenting false information on candidates and US institutions. Some of the Facebook content distributed by an identified 470 accounts was said to have been shared upwards of 340 million times, says the Washington Post. It was also discovered that over $100,000 had been spent on provocative and hot-button advertisements on Facebook alone reported, The New York Times.
Additionally, the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service launched cyber attacks on individuals associated to the Democratic Party and the Clinton Campaign, with a reported 19,000 emails leaked to the public in the run up to the election. Attempts were also made to hack the national voter-registration infrastructure, with the Director of National Intelligence at the time James Clapper attributing the attempts directly to Vladimir Putin. By the time the nominees had been allocated and with the election months away, it was too late to make any real dent in the information campaigns; Overall, the combination of social media manipulation, cyber-attacks and general attempts to create disparity and division succeeded. By opening up a plethora of problems across multiple issues, the IW strategies utilised by Russia contributed to the degradation of trust among US citizens in the ability for US institutions to safeguard perhaps the most important element of the democratic society.
Separate to state-sanctioned attacks, various forms of information warfare can also be easily carried out by non-state actors and individuals harbouring cyber and social engineering skills. For example, among the most far-reaching data breaches can be seen when in 2018, hotel giant Marriott announced that since 2014 the names, numbers and passport information of up to 500 million guests worldwide had been stolen by unidentified Hackers. Another notable instance was the Cambridge Analytica affair through which Facebook profile data on as many as 80 million users was analysed in terms of preference and interest helped generate targeted advertising.
All things considered, the very broad topic of weaponised information certainly is at the forefront of many political debates. Since there are so many methods that operate with varying degrees of sophistication and subtlety, the greatest friend any government or individual can possess is an avid sense of awareness and education on existing threats, as well as on potential future threats. Basic habits on the cyber front such as installing antivirus software, having long passwords that are not shared with anyone else and accessing only secure websites can all contribute, but the common denominator in most scenarios is the human element. Since IW is in essence manipulating the mind through a technological medium, it is essential that individuals and states alike pursue an up-to-date awareness of the threat environment. Discretion is key on the individual level, both in protecting and interpreting information. At the national level things become much blurrier, especially since IW attacks can be very highly targeted at individuals to produce a much larger effect. Something as simple as a person with high-level access leaking information or as far-reaching as an election interference can contribute to the undermining of institutional trust to some degree, destabilising the relationship citizens have to their government.
The ability for information warfare to destroy trust among people and governments is certainly something which has yet to be fully explored. This is indeed worrying considering the damage that has already been demonstrated. Since opinions change at the discretion of the individual, it is extremely difficult to gauge the immediate and flow-on effects that the conduct of such warfare brings to fruition. For now, the full potential for IW to wreak havoc remains unseen.
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