The modern blitzkrieg revolutionized warfare by creating a way to overwhelm enemy forces with opposition, forcing them into submission in unprecedentedly short periods of time. The term has evolved over time to mean launching an extreme military campaign designed to create a short-term victory. As war evolved beyond soldiers and planes, so did tactics – but rudimentary strategies have remained. And the blitzkrieg has re-emerged in recent years in a form of military operations requiring dexterity not in the trigger finger, but in the typing of thumbs on a touchscreen keyboard.
Information warfare, enabled by advances in, and access to, technological infrastructure, has been defined as “conflict or struggle between two or more groups in an information environment”. This definition is enormously vague, and seemingly extends from direct hacking to celebrities passive aggressively subtweeting insults about their former partners to their new ones. In reality, the spectrum encapsulates all forms (though to qualify as warfare, the scale must be stretched from the actions of a Kardashian to those of a national government). Billions have been invested by governments across the globe to install precautionary measures to prevent direct cyber attacks, the likes of which become more common by the day. From China and Russia’s frequent attacks upon American intelligence infrastructure to the North Korean government attacking a movie studio and leaking thousands of email correspondences, the general public has become familiar with how this form of warfare looks.
But there is another type of information warfare that has been used, to mixed results, across the globe: Propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Stretching through traditional and new-media channels, well-funded attackers have the capacity to plant ideas, sow dissent and generate alternate realities. A recent article from the Atlantic cited an example where the Russian government renamed a large region of Southern Ukraine to Novorssiya, creating maps and flags, writing the name into history textbooks and creating dedicated news networks and twitter feeds. While seeming comical, this was rather sinister – Russia’s actions in the Ukraine are creating an environment where regions that have been recently annexed are now being forcefully integrated, both physically and culturally, into Russian history. Within the next decade, the very real possibility exists that citizens born in the Ukraine may be programmed into believing they are in fact Russian, and that the Russian invasion and occupation of their homeland was not an illegitimate act.
This seems a ludicrous example – one cannot simply start renaming countries and territories wherever they please. But it does serve to illustrate the power of disinformation campaigns. If an idea is introduced and seems valid, many will consider it. If other ideas are actively suppressed or delegitimized that oppose it, individuals who hold certain beliefs will begin to assume that their ideas are valid, widely held and may develop a sense that a consensus exists when, in reality, there is none. Psychologists characterize this as the False-Consensus Effect, wherein one is lead to believe that the opinion of their community is in line with the collective opinions of society at large. Common in the adoption of conspiracy theories, this effect has seen misinformation campaigns in both developed and developing nations launch and gain powerful figureheads as advocates, thereby bringing their views or theories firmly into the mainstream.
In the example of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, state-funded media and propaganda arms painted protestors as neo-Nazis actively seeking to undermine the national interest. The first step of Russia claiming any territory is to broadcast their media programs to the Ukrainian public. Putin himself speaks of Novorssiya as if large regions of the Ukraine were being rightfully repatriated and public support was for Russian occupation – in reality, Russian forces hold only a small piece of land in the country and are decisively not welcome by both the domestic and international communities.
Russia’s campaign extends beyond the Ukraine – intelligence reports have shown Russian-funded media blitzes supporting anti-EU candidates across Europe, demonizing democratic protestors in Middle-Eastern nations and interfering in foreign elections by launching disinformation campaigns and funding certain political parties while actively attacking others. Nor are they the only party known to engage in information warfare – China and North Korea have each been accused by multiple nations of interfering in elections through suppression of information or direct support of certain parties, thereby influencing the governments and futures of fellow sovereign states.
How can misinformation be countered? Going blow for blow has been shown to be ineffective – but pushing increased funding and support towards media institutions, whose responsibility is to report the truth, remains a viable alternative. But the responsibility then falls with the media itself to not simply engage these ideas in discussion, but to actively fight for the truth. Both traditional and new media forums have been careless in this, providing a platform for all to equally espouse their views without creating the corresponding accountability for all parties. A set of common standards must exist and facts must be prioritized – lest we be overwhelmed with information to the point where we are unable to divorce fact from falsehood.
Calculating when misinformation is present remains the role of the media. Not all information is equal. Presenting the facts and allowing individuals to make informed opinions is necessary to the survival of liberal democracy. It’s time those who hold and make pens are held to the same account as those who brandish swords.