Weaponizing the narrative in the information war with Russia

2016-07-25-usa-russia-propaganda

Well, it’s 2017, and in less than three weeks, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. This surreal situation still has many scratching their heads, wondering how it came to be.

While some are coming to terms with Trump’s election as a symptom of a broken system that offered no good options in the 2016 race, others continue grasping for answers that bypass any need for self-reflection. We’ve heard a lot recently about “fake news” and Russian hacking. Now it appears a new spin on the narrative is taking shape.

In an article published by DefenseOne today, “Weaponized Narrative Is the New Battlespace,” Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau, co-directors of something called The Weaponized Narrative Initiative at the Center on the Future of War (a partnership of Washington, D.C. think tank New America and Arizona State University), discuss the emerging phenomenon of — yes, you guessed it — the weaponized narrative.

“Weaponized narrative seeks to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms,” Allenby and Garreau write. “It can be used tactically, as part of explicit military or geopolitical conflict; or strategically, as a way to reduce, neutralize, and defeat a civilization, state, or organization. Done well, it limits or even eliminates the need for armed force to achieve political and military aims.”

Allenby and Garreau advocate embracing this seemingly novel “weaponization,” but what they are writing about here is really nothing new. Indeed, one might argue that the U.S. mainstream news media — with their pronouncements of Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming likelihood of winning the election and the “resounding mandate” she would bring to the White House — did their best to weaponize the narrative in 2016. One might also easily argue that this effort backfired.

Allenby and Garreau are talking about good old-fashioned propaganda. And although prior to the 2016 election, public discussion of this topic tended to remain somewhat elusive in the U.S., we are all well aware that for the last several months, American media coverage of foreign propaganda — real and imagined — has also been nothing new.

After the election, the Washington Post ran a story decrying “more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda” — either purposefully or as “useful idiots” — based on allegations from a sketchy outfit called PropOrNot, which has refused to identify its membership. The Post later added an editor’s note clarifying that it “does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings”.

More recently, a report released last week by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI titled “GRIZZLY STEPPE – Russian Malicious Cyber Activity” asserted that Russian civilian and military intelligence agencies, which the report lumps together under the acronym “RIS,” were responsible for extensive hacking aimed at influencing the election.

The U.S. media regularly trumpet their independence and “watchdog” role in keeping government accountable while denouncing all Russian outlets as state mouthpieces. Following the Grizzly Steppe report, though, the Post ran another story –- this one based on the government report and comments from anonymous “U.S. officials” claiming Russian “penetration of the nation’s electrical grid” –- which it again had to later append with an editor’s note.

“An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid,” it read. “Authorities say there is no indication of that so far. The computer at Burlington Electric that was hacked was not attached to the grid.”

Security experts, meanwhile, have expressed doubts about the Grizzly Steppe report’s usefulness. “This report is long on jargon but short on specifics,” wrote Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, hardly a shill for Donald Trump. “More than half of it is just a list of suggestions for preventive measures.”

At the same time as the Grizzly Steppe report was making waves in the U.S. media, another propaganda-related story was also unfolding. On Christmas Eve, the Guardian reported that Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks and a central figure in the controversy over alleged Russian influence operations, had “offered guarded praise of Donald Trump” and the “vibrant” Russian media.

As Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept subsequently pointed out, and as reflected in an editor’s note added to the Guardian story, Assange’s comments also actually included other reasons for focusing less of Wikileaks’ resources on Russia than on the West, including that Wikileaks is primarily an English-language organization. Assange has also since stated yet again that his source was not the Russian government, while calling the wording of official U.S. statements on the topic “very strange.”

Last summer, the RAND Corporation released a report titled “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It.” The report focuses on “a remarkable evolution in Russia’s approach to propaganda,” which basically amounts to the use of disinformation and “black propaganda,” although the report never uses the latter term.

The report recommends taking steps such as to “forewarn audiences of misinformation,” which has obviously become a recurring theme in the news in recent months. Other recommendations may be more controversial. “Compete with Russian propaganda,” the RAND report urges. “Both the United States and NATO have the potential to prevent Russia from dominating the information environment.”

Coming from an organization that prominently promises “objective analysis,” the pre-election RAND report at times comes across as somewhat silly in its rhetoric. “Russian news channels, such as RT and Sputnik News, are more like a blend of infotainment and disinformation than fact-checked journalism, though their formats intentionally take the appearance of proper news programs,” it states. It seems almost too obvious to state that any determined critic of TV news as a medium or the 24-hour news cycle might easily argue virtually the same thing about America’s major dedicated news channels such as Fox News and MSNBC.

Still, the report touches on some of the more advanced kinds of influence operations that are sometimes mistakenly viewed as paranoid fantasy by those who equate “propaganda” with crude lies. The report discusses, for example, “a substantial force of paid Internet ‘trolls’ who also often attack or undermine views or information that runs counter to Russian themes, doing so through online chat rooms, discussion forums, and comments sections on news and other websites.”

Western intelligence agencies use similar tactics, of course, though this is left out of the RAND report. The report also bluntly notes that “Russian propagandists have been caught hiring actors to portray victims of manufactured atrocities or crimes for news reports, (as was the case when Viktoria Schmidt pretended to have been attacked by Syrian refugees in Germany for Russian’s Zvezda TV network), or faking on-scene news reporting (as shown in a leaked video in which ‘reporter’ Maria Katasonova is revealed to be in a darkened room with explosion sounds playing in the background rather than on a battlefield in Donetsk when a light is switched on during the recording).”

Of course, the possibility of the U.S. government successfully pulling off this sort of sophisticated hoax is routinely denounced as unhinged conspiracy theory whenever suggestions of its having happened are discussed by mainstream American news outlets. Nevertheless, the RAND report urges the U.S. to fight fire with fire.

“Compete! If Russian propaganda aims to achieve certain effects, it can be countered by preventing or diminishing those effects. Yet, the tools of the Russian propagandists may not be available due to resource constraints or policy, legal, or ethical barriers,” it notes. “Although it may be difficult or impossible to directly refute Russian propaganda, both NATO and the United States have a range of capabilities to inform, influence, and persuade selected target audiences. Increase the flow of persuasive information and start to compete, seeking to generate effects that support U.S. and NATO objectives.

In seemingly embracing the weaponized narrative, the U.S. mainstream media, along with its military and intelligence agencies, appear to be taking tactics right from RAND ’s “firehose of falsehood” playbook, and by extension, from Vladimir Putin’s.

The U.S., though, has its own history of academic and military theory surrounding concepts such as psychological warfare and propaganda, both “black” and “white,” going back to World War II and earlier. Dredging up those old inconvenient concepts, however, might throw a wrench into RAND’s claim of “objective analysis,” among others. Yet whether we can win an information war purely by borrowing Russian tactics remains to be seen.

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