You are about to battle an army of trolls and bots. Masters of disguise and rapid reproduction, the enemy run rampant. The future – for your nation and your children – is at stake. The war has begun.
The lines above look like a stale premise for an unoriginal computer game. However, in an unfortunate instance of life imitating art, too much of it is true. A new mode of war has been launched and everyone will be impacted by it.
You’re in the Army Now
The all-volunteer military has been around for over 45 years, but many U.S. citizens probably remember the selective service process of involuntary conscription, informally known as ‘the draft,’ the armed forces once used to fill their ranks. For millions of young American men that process culminated with a written greeting ordering them to report for induction into the armed forces.
Foreign government information influence operations against American interests have been conducted through social media and experts anticipate more campaigns (1, 2). These systematic endeavors to manipulate the public through social media channels were initially overlooked by intelligence agencies (1). However, the potential implications of what must be acknowledged as a brilliant disinformation and distraction strategy are staggering. Everyone, users of social media or not, will be involved in this internet influence war or impacted by the outcomes. Like it or not, all of us have been drafted into battle.
The Strategic Situation
Government propaganda has long been used by and against American citizens and the situation today is a true golden age for public opinion manipulators. Social media bypass the traditional mass media gatekeepers and allow essentially unfiltered, direct, access to audiences. In addition, the information flow follows an unprecedented interactive pattern; social media make each person potentially self-empowered instant communications propagators. Under the right circumstances information may be spread through electronic chain reactions without any regard for its accuracy or origins.
In a deeply divided nation with closely contested elections, covert influence operations that alter a comparatively few votes may produce outsized impacts. Social media are ideal political influence tools for foreign operatives because they can participate from afar while concealing their true identities. What has been most surprising is the revelation that the actual scope of foreign social media influence operations extended far beyond direct U.S. electioneering efforts. Generating civic controversy seems to be a top priority and social media troll farms and bots industriously stir it up wherever they find it (3-7). From vaccination battles, to movies, to Supreme Court nominee preferences, the method seems to have been to sow discord into an already divided public square and let human nature take over. Under some circumstances, confirmation bias coupled with an ability to forward items through social media spreads inflammatory information widely. Our adversaries know the issues, our intrinsic weaknesses and how to use the astonishing power of social media platforms very well.
In his book, Messing with the Enemy, Clint Watts outlines some of his counterterrorism exploits which employed social media (8). His experience and insights are fascinating reading, but one of the most thought-provoking ideas he has presented is the notion that we should brace for a proliferation of troll farm-like influence operations. We will soon exist in a social media environment in which every political interest group, corporation, or self-actualized individual will be able to operate their own information management – warfare – services (9). It is now clear that social media are potentially far more powerful mass mind manipulation tools than many of us realized. Mr. Watts reveals that terrorists have been adept at exploiting new technologies and social media (8). With clear demonstrations of what can be achieved using only social media tools, how long will it be before they devise ways to harness the forces of swift, uncensored communications to unleash 9/11 style mayhem?
The capacity for users to specifically select and exclude information sources has created “preference bubbles” (8) enabling many in the most networked generation in history to exist happily in a peculiarly impoverished isolation. Information exclusion may foster the flowering of alternative facts and the confusion or political divisions the presence of co-existing, but largely non-communicating information subcultures could sow in the greater civil society are staggering (10). De facto information segregation has been achieved, meaning foreign agencies seeking to undermine national unity need only keep the subgroups agitated.
The scientific community has yet to recognize that social media tools in combination with other developments such as the rise of predatory publishers pose an extraordinary potential danger to research and technological development (8). Those bent on undermining respect and faith in public institutions and fact-based decision making processes have ideal mechanisms at their disposal to carry out their attacks.
Recognizing the Situation
Who was that person on Twitter you crossed swords with over the relative merits of The Last Jedi? Was it even a human being you engaged (5, 6)? With social media platforms generally flummoxed over the unanticipated uses of their systems as well as being hard pressed to simply eliminate fake accounts and bots, users are on their own. Some guidelines about how to evaluate the reliability of on-line information and combat disinformation campaigns have been created (1, 11). Now that social media environments have become battlefields, recognizing if and when you are being egged on into playing someone else’s game has suddenly become important.
(1) Tim Mak. What Can Citizens Do to Fight Foreign Disinformation Campaigns? NPR Morning Edition, 1 October 2018. n.pr/2DLa1yg
(2) Laurie Segall. Facebook’s Former Security Chief: US Elections at Risk of Being ‘World Cup of Information Warfare.’ CNN, 4 September 2018. https://money.cnn.com/2018/09/04/technology/us-elections-disinformation-alex-stamos/index.html
(3) Carolyn Y. Johnson. Russian Trolls and Twitter Bots Exploit Vaccine Controversy. The Washington Post, 23 August 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/08/23/russian-trolls-twitter-bots-exploit-vaccine-controversy/?tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.35ee7afa7cc9
(4) Jacqueline Howard. Why Russian Trolls Stoked US Vaccine Debates. CNN, 24 August 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/23/health/russia-trolls-vaccine-debate-study/index.html
(5) Chris Taylor. “Last Jedi” Hate Tweets Were Weaponized by Russia, Says Study. Mashable, 2 October 2018. https://mashable.com/article/the-last-jedi-rian-johnson-russian-trolls/#swQy2fpUyuqA
(6) Max de Haldevang. Russian Trolls and Bots Are Flooding Twitter With Ford-Kavanaugh Disinformation. Quartz, 2 October 2018. https://qz.com/1409102/russian-trolls-and-bots-are-flooding-twitter-with-ford-kavanaugh-disinformation/
(8) Clint Watts. Messing with the Enemy, HarperCollins.
(9) Clint Watts. How Every Campaign Will Have a Troll Farm of its Own. The Daily Beast, 9 April 2018. thedailybeast.com/how-every-camp…
(10) Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich. Truth Decay. RAND Corporation Research Report. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2314.html
(11) Steve Inskeep. 2016. A Finder’s Guide to Facts. NPR, 11 December 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/12/11/505154631/a-finders-guide-to-facts