Responding to Russia’s Information Warfare

Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. He has penned an interesting New York Times op-ed on responding to Russia’s information warfare. He also actively tweets and blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows.

 

In his NYT op-ed Dr Galeotti has several suggestions for his readers. First, strengthen cybersecurity including for targets such as domestic media outlets and political parties. Second, educate the public about disinformation and propaganda, such as how to critically evaluate media and news sources. Third, use multilateral agreements to target Russia’s finances. Fourth, use economic statecraft measures such as asset freezes and sanctions. Fifth, strengthen and uphold collective security treaties. Sixth, target Vladimir Putin’s psychological vulnerabilities such as his fear of failure.

 

These suggested policy actions reflect an on-going debate in international relations circles. University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer has advanced an offensive realist approach: (1) the international system is anarchical; (2) great powers seek asymmetric military strength over other nation-states; and (3) great powers in a defensive stance will use alliances and other means as buck passing to prevent the emergence of threatening rivals and competitors.

 

Dr Galleotti’s suggestions reflect a liberal internationalist approach that differs from Mearsheimer’s offensive realism. The domestic populace is educated and key institutions are secured from other great powers who seek to influence them. Alliances and treaties that impose a rules-based liberal order on the anarchical international system are prioritised and strengthened. Foreign policy is broadened from diplomatic and military responses to include cybersecurity, economic, and sociological dimensions. As part of this policy shift, insights from political psychology are used to understand foreign leaders, politico-military institutions, and the decision elites who mobilise them.

 

At the end of his NYT op-ed Dr Galeotti observes:

 

All of this requires a new mind-set. It means accepting that Russia has chosen to be at war with us – albeit a special and limited war. Russia needs to be treated as a political combatant.

 

Understanding limited, special warfare that has economic, psychological, and sociological dimensions does need new thinking. This is the shadowy realm of disinformation, information warfare, propaganda, and psychological operations. These are areas that Russia has sophisticated conceptual / theoretical and applied expertise in. The United States and its allies need to gain a similar level of knowledge. Policymakers need to better appreciate what living in a possible multipolar world (rather than a neoconservative ‘unipolar moment’) is like. Other great powers and strategic actors (such as those in Adam Segal’s recent book The Hacked World Order) do not necessarily have a liberal internationalist worldview.

 

Dr Galeotti’s policy advice is a first step. More can be done.

Races to the Bottom in Doomed Digital Media and University Research

“Clicks don’t pay the bills.”

 

That’s the brutal assessment of New Republic features director Theodore Ross about doomed digital media in 2016. Amongst the downsizing and casualties: The Guardian, Univision, the Huffington Post, Mashable, the International Business Times, Al Jazeera America, Medium, and Gawker. The disturbing trend for Ross? Google and Facebook capture of 85% of the digital advertising market. Pivoting to viral video seemed promising. “Companies have already begun to question whether video clicks really are the best clicks,” Ross notes. In a tweet on 14th December 2016 announcing his New Republic article, Ross mourned, “I will never be able to retire.”

 

I learned this the hard way in April 2000.

 

Five months earlier, I had joined The Disinformation Company Ltd (TDC) to edit and write for their Disinformation website. Publisher Gary Baddeley and Creative Director Richard Metzger agreed to sponsor me to work in the United States. I had to finish my overdue Bachelor of Arts degree first. We had great contributors. TDC’s parent company Razorfish was worth $US1 billion. The future looked very bright.

 

Then in late March 2000 the dotcom crash began to happen. On 14th April 2000, I wrote about the unfolding crash for Disinformation in real-time. “The new e-poor,” I commented. Razorfish’s stock price soon imploded. The US move fell through. I continued to work for TDC as an overseas independent contractor. They later pivoted to television, book, DVD, and Video on Demand production. I finished my Bachelors degree, started a Masters, and then worked in university research for the Smart Internet Technology CRC based at Swinburne University.

 

In 2006, I met a Fairfax Media online editor at a telecommunications conference. He talked passionately about the algorithms that ranked stories for readers. Age and Sydney Morning Herald readers preferred celebrity and sports coverage. The algorithms drove Fairfax Media’s publishing platform. I privately reflected that watered down op-ed columns had replaced a strong editorial vision.

 

You have to follow Jim Collins’ advice and confront the brutal facts. The Disinformation experience taught me that web content is a loss leader that builds you an audience. You then offer other content and services such as ebooks, documentaries, or web-based training to earn revenues. You cut costs. You have something to offer more than digital advertising. You cross-promote other sites and authors. You use Facebook, Twitter, Google Scholar and other free tools as outreach. Your authors need to be accessible to their audience (whilst also still protecting sources if needed).

 

Fairfax Media and the rest of Ross’s doomed digital media did not follow these lessons. They initially funded journalism with high overhead costs like traditional print media. They focused on digital advertising and not other revenue sources. They published content that was noise: it was not distinctive and did not have a unique, compelling voice. They let marketing algorithms take-over editorial policy. They diversified into too many other areas.

 

I discovered similar mistakes in the university research world. In the past, universities invested in early career researchers to fund conference travel, projects, publishing, and skills development. University research institutes built a large infrastructure to promote their programs and teams. This all involved a lot of money, a lot of administration time, and a lot of negotiation. In other words, high transaction costs. Universities did this in part because they used to take a long-term view of career and talent development.

 

But in today’s austerity world these high transaction costs are no longer feasible. They are regarded as inefficiencies or overheads. Universities have cut funding for early career researchers (known as ECRs) who compete for precariat, short-term contracts. An ECR’s average career path is between three to eight years before burnout if there is no ‘up or out’ promotion to the professoriate. University research institutes have had to embrace contracts, donor philanthropy, and strategic partnerships. They have had to diversify their funding sources as grants become more competitive.

 

A race to the bottom drives both digital media and university research. The average academic journal article has between 800 and 1100 unique views. The average book by a university publisher has a 300 copy print run. Authors often assign their copyright and other intellectual property rights to publishers — and so don’t earn licensing or residual fees. These facts and norms are little known outside academia and they highlight the high cost and waste of much research. The Conversation website illustrates some of these trends: it curates academic research to a broader audience but it also doesn’t pay its academic contributors.

 

I told the Fairfax Media online editor in 2006 that he needed to take a more proactive approach to publishing content. The model I was grasping towards is an event-driven, stream-based approach like the Bloomberg financial news network or complex event processing. The publishing platform helps you to anticipate, respond to, and shape coverage. What is also needed is to build a portfolio of branded intellectual property that discovers and engages with a passionate audience. It’s less like traditional news or university research, and more like Creative Artists Agency (James Andrew Miller’s Powerhouse), perpetual deal-making (Robert Teitelman’s Bloodsport), or even life-hacking (Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans).

 

You will probably still need another job. And, multiple income sources.

Aleppo’s Fall and the Ross-Morozov Twitter Debate

Turkey and Russia’s ceasfire deal in Aleppo, Syria is falling apart.

 

7-year-old Bana Alabed captured the Western media’s attention with this harrowing tweet on 12th December 2016:

 

Final message – people are dying since last night. I am very surprised I am tweeting right now & still alive. – Fatemah

 

Bana’s family was caught in the cross-fire and shelling between Syrian government and militia forces. Quartz provided some context to Bana’s tweet:

 

As the battle for the city enters its final phase, many residents have turned to Twitter to post their goodbyes.

Seven-year-old Bana Alabed, along with her mother Fatemah, have been tweeting the horrors from East Aleppo since September. After sending several distress calls to the rest of the world, Bana and her mother have resorted to tweeting their last messages.

In 2009, Dr Ben Eltham and I wrote a conference paper on Twitter’s role in Iran’s election. We were inspired by a request from Eric Ross, who at the time worked for Hillary Clinton’s US State Department, for Twitter to support protesters by staying online and rescheduling a planned maintenance period. Ross reflected liberal optimism that social networks like Facebook and Twitter would empower democratic revolutions like the Arab Spring.

It was only a few weeks after Iran’s election but Eltham and I reached unsettling conclusions. We discovered that Iran’s Basij paramilitary used Twitter to hunt down and kill Iranian protesters. Ross’s liberal optimism was perhaps misplaced. Internet critic and journalist Evgeny Morozov was closer to our view. For a TED Talk in July 2009, Morozov memorably warned that the Net aids dictatorships.

Aleppo is now replaying Iran’s dark outcome as trapped Syrian civilians fight for their lives. We saw the CNN Effect in the 1990-91 Gulf War as smart-guided missiles destroyed Iraqi buildings on international television screens. But now Twitter is showing what the lived experience is like of trapped civilians during a fierce battle. The rules of engagement seem to hardly matter to the combatants.

Bana Alabed’s plight brings the Ross-Morozov debate about Twitter into a stark focus. Alabed’s tweet — and the global media coverage that followed over the next 24 hours — highlight how Twitter can be used for humanitarian concerns. There is hope for Ross’s liberal vision: social media can give a powerful voice to the otherwise voiceless. What it now needs is a more robust critical infrastructure to also deal with Morozov’s concerns.

Its co-founders originally conceived Twitter as a messaging platform to provide status updates. How can Twitter function effectively in a chaotic war-zone? What infrastructure can be built around it — in a pre-crime way — to leverage the Responsibility to Protect norm? These are potential questions which the Ross-Morozov debate about Twitter’s effectiveness hint at, but we do not have the answers yet.

Perhaps Twitter’s designers or the next generation of social media infrastructure can develop and roll-out answers. This solutionism may be too late for Bana Alabed and other Aleppo civilians. But such social media infrastructure might help to monitor and protect civilians in future wars and conflicts.

On The Russia Moment

Expanded notes from a Facebook exchange with South Africa’s Damon Leff about Russia Today and allegations of Russia hacks:

 

1. Most credible Western sources note that Russia Today is Kremlin-funded. It would not be able to operate unless it reflected Putin Administration aims and interests.

 

2. Is television producer Peter Pomerantsev biased about Russia Today’s funding? Two relevant quotes from Pomerantsev’s book Nothing Is True And Everything Is PossibleThe Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014):

 

Russia Today is Russia’s answer to BBC World and Al-Jazeera, a rolling 24/7 news channel broadcastng in English (and Arabic and Spanish) across every hotel and living room in the world, set up by presidential decree with an annual budget of over $300 million and with a mission to “give Russia’s point of view on world events.” (p. 46)

 

And:

Once things had settled down it turned out that only about two hundred of the two-thousand-or-so employees were native English speakers. They were the on-screen window dressing and spell-checkers of the operation. Behind the scene the real decisions were made by a small band of Russian producers. (pp. 47-48).

 

Is Russia Today funded the same way as the BBC and CNN? The BBC is funded by an annual license fee and its BBC World Service reflects UK Government interests. CNN is privately funded via Time Warner and there is academic work on the so-called CNN Effect (Piers Robinson and others).

 

A BBC or CNN comparison involves things like journalistic standards, editing choices, narratives, and guest selection. If you watch any of these stations for a long time period then you can observe this for yourself. Having watched RT for a year for me it is interesting — and it has clear biases.

 

3. If Russia or Wikileaks hacked the Democratic National Party in mid-2016 then they are not going to say ‘yes’ when confronted. Effective deception and information warfare operations involve several layers of plausible deniability. For example, Ray McGovern’s recent claim to Russia Today that email has a “tracing mechanism” omits that this can be re-routed in an information warfare operation.

 

4. The Central Intelligence Agency has claimed Russian involvement in the hacks. Articles critical of the CIA that allege a fake campaign against Russia (such as by CounterPunch‘s Dave Lindorff) are often either more about domestic politics or about the CIA’s historical operations in other countries.

 

5. In a multipolar world it is important to debias your worldview and to consider situations from other viewpoints. For example, in PhD research I look at Russian sources on nuclear strategy and Islamic State. But in doing so you should not be a naive idealist about others’ aims and intentions. Russia’s Putin Administration has particular strategic goals. It is helpful to be familiar with Russian sources such as geopolitics expert Alexander Dugin who is quite open about Putin Administration goals and intentions.

 

6. Russia also has a history of effective disinformation and tactics like Kompromat: compiling dossiers of compromising information about public figures. Kompromat fits how Wikileaks released information about Hillary Clinton’s senior campaign officials but not Donald Trump’s campaign. Russia Today often adopts a ridicule strategy on public figures it doesn’t like. What this suggests is that such tactics and strategies are migrating from Russia to a United States or Western context.

 

7. It is helpful in assessing Russia Today to have some familiarity with the propaganda work of writers like Jacques Ellul, Jason Stanley, Randal Marlin, Edward S. Herman, and Noam Chomsky. The emergence of new players like Russia Today also reflects the maturation of inter-state rivalry using new communications and media platforms.

 

8. Having an academic background can be misunderstood by activists. You learn what argumentation and evidence is. You often get to be immersed in the scholarship of a particular field. You learn from specialists. You may have relevant industry experience. (In my case, working as a journalist and writing / editing for the Disinformation website for almost 10 years.) You learn to do careful source evaluation of all sources. This stance can be frustrating to some issues-motivated activists. They may want a simple enemy.

 

Research Notes

A few research notes from my PhD thesis draft:

 

  • The journal International Affairs may be a source for Russian perspectives on Jack Snyder’s original conceptualisation of strategic culture, and the SALT nuclear arms reduction talks. In particular, a comparative US-Russia historical perspective is needed.
  • Robert Jay Lifton and Haruki Murakami’s interviews with Aum Shinrikyo renunciates provide possible secondary data to identify possible hypnotisibility. The APA Division 30 definition of hypnotisibility (2014): “An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior during hypnosis.”
  • Coercive persuasion sequelae in Aum Shinrikyo and Islamic State would be coded as Other Specified Dissociative Disorder in DSM V (following the work of Robert Jay Lifton and Edgar Schein).
  • A social psychological perspective suggests that the renunciates were sensitised to Aum Shinrikyo’s leader Shoko Asahara from Aum propaganda such as media reports, books, and short anime films. Haruki Murakami documents how Aum renunciates often provided the labour for this media to be produced and disseminated.

A Weak Signal on the Post-Fact Climate

Re-reading Peter Pomerantsev’s book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014), I noticed this detail about the RT (Russia Today) channel (p. 48):

 

But the first time viewer would not necessarily register these stories, for such obvious pro-Kremlin messaging is only one part of RT’s output. Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, had a talk show on RT. American academics who fight the American World Order, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, antiglobalists, and the European Far Right are given generous space. Nigel Farage, leader of the nonparliamentary anti-immigration UKIP party, is a frequent guest; Far Left supporter of Saddam Hussein George Galloway hosts a program about Western media bias.

 

Pomerantsev’s comment about Farage is a weak signal about the contemporary post-fact climate. Russian disinformation and propaganda migrated from RT in 2014 into the Brexit vote and the Trump presidential campaign in 2016. This post-fact climate can also be traced to the disillusionment in the West after the 2007-09 global financial crisis and 2011 sentiment fears about the European Union. Pomerantsev is now program director of the Information Warfare initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Terrorist Group Aims

An excerpt from my PhD thesis notes:

 

Particular outcomes identified for terrorist groups include: (i) the achievement of a particular strategic vision (Y1); (ii) asset expropriation for decision elite or leadership control (Y2); (iii) promulgation of a particular political or religious ideology (Y3); (iv) continuation through a successor group or institution (Y4); (v) evolving into a political party or developing a political wing (Y5); (vi) devolution into an earlier developmental phase or form (Y6); and (vii) negotiation of a peace deal with a nation-state’s government (Y7).

 

Process tracing can be used to identify these group aims from terrorist communiques and propaganda.

The Medallion Fund

Occasionally news filters out about ultra-secretive quantitative hedge funds who employ scientists. Renaissance Technologies is amongst the most profitable: it uses string theorists and voice recognition researchers. Katherine Burton of Bloomberg Markets notes about RT’s Medallion Fund:

 

The fabled fund, known for its intense secrecy, has produced about $55 billion in profit over the last 28 years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, making it about $10 billion more profitable than funds run by billionaires Ray Dalio and George Soros. What’s more, it did so in a shorter time and with fewer assets under management. The fund almost never loses money. Its biggest drawdown in one five-year period was half a percent.

Kissingerian Realpolitik

For the past several years I’ve been circling around Henry Kissinger’s grand strategy work. In March 2012, I had a coffee with Kissinger’s biographer Jeremi Suri. Later that year I corresponded briefly with Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis on grand strategy. The first volume of Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger biography is queued on my Kindle to read after PhD work is completed. Kissinger’s interview with The Atlantic Monthly‘s Jeffrey Goldberg is a transcript I will return to over the next several months to closely study.