Sun Tzu argued already at the turn of the 6th and 5th century BC that the key to victory is to enter the enemy’s mind. However, thanks to breaking the monopoly for the official flow of information and galloping technological development, the role of information warfare has never been as significant as it is currently.
In the spring of 1805, a nobleman comes to Vienna. He introduces himself as a Hungarian recently banished from France for his activities against Napoleon. He grouses about Bonaparte wherever he goes. “This mad Corsican is leading the country to ruin! Both common people and soldiers have had enough of him!” he clamors. Thanks to his connections among Austrian officers he reaches the Feldmarschall-leutnant Karl Mack von Leiberich himself. He shows him an anti-Napoleon newspaper. Only one conclusion can be drawn after reading articles inside it: France is seething and is on the verge of bidding defiance to the emperor. “You want to read it? Here!” he shouts distributing the newspapers among staff members. He also presents letters criticizing Napoleon, written by high profile Frenchmen.
Mack starts to meet the Hungarian regularly. He listens, asks questions, seeks advice. The visitor provides more and more information. Soon he becomes one of Mack’s most trusted men. He is at the Feldmarshall’s side when Austrian troops set off to fight the French in the fall, without waiting for their allies (Russia and England) to attack. They believe that France is weak and they do not have to wait for anyone. Mack’s units reach Ulm and wait there, because the Hungarian advises them to do so. Unfortunately, they are soon surrounded by enemy forces. When Mack realizes that he has been led into a trap, he seeks help from his trusted adviser, but he is nowhere to be found. He disappears and Austrian forces suffer defeat.
Years later, the truth surfaces: the French newspaper read by Mack was a fake, and so was the correspondence. The “Hungarian” was Karl Schulmeister and worked for Napoleon. Bonaparte used to call him “the Emperor of Spies.”
The story proves that information warfare is not the invention of the 20th century. “A Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, living at the turn of the 6th and 5th century BC, already said that entering the enemy’s mind is the key to victory,” emphasizes Prof Tomasz Aleksandrowicz of Collegium Civitas, expert in the field of security. Information warfare has a very wide definition – from hacking operations, sabotage and diversion in cyberspace, which are to paralyze the functioning of institutions in the attacked country, to influencing society by skillfully manipulating information and imposing own content. Lt Cdr (Res) Bohdan Pac, PhD, of the Warsaw Institute for Strategic Initiatives, explains: “It is long-term activity, spread over several years, and its consequences are very often irreversible. It helps to gain advantage without engaging military resources, postpones armed conflict, often also reduces its scale, and as a consequence the number of casualties and material damage. Society that yields to an aggressor who operates this way doesn’t have to love him. But there is a big chance that it will not hate him.”
Agents of influence are of big help in such activity. They operate in the media, promoting opinions and interpretations of events which are beneficial to the aggressor, sometimes going as far as fabricating information, i.e. creating so-called fake news. “Information warfare is like a toolbox. Countries that conduct information war choose their methods and techniques according to needs, and the configuration depends on the victim and the environment in which it functions,” emphasizes Bohdan Pac. The number of possibilities is countless, but the effect is always the same – provoking internal tensions and conflicts, resulting in social polarization and degrading the value system that normally unites the people. This in turn leads to a crisis within public institutions. The state becomes weak, susceptible to being controlled from outside, vulnerable to political, economic and military aggression.
In the recent years, the role of information warfare has grown tremendously. “Nowadays, kinetic operations, that is war in its traditional sense, are more or less one quarter of all activities undertaken by the sides of any conflict. At least according to the Gerasimov doctrine. The remaining part is information warfare,” states Tomasz Aleksandrowicz. All this due to galloping technological progress.
“When I wanted to read the Washington Post in the past, I had to wait for a week, then go to the library, hoping that the issue that I wanted to read was already there. Today I just go to their website and browse the latest issue of the newspaper, before its paper version even reaches American stands. The Internet has broken all boundaries as regards access to information,” emphasizes Aleksandrowicz. Now you can influence a potential recipient from any, even the most distant, corner of the world.
“For example, you can easily imagine someone living outside Poland start a Polish-language portal thanks to which they conduct a disinformation campaign targeted at the Polish recipient. It doesn’t have to be a big entity. Eliminating this kind of tool is virtually impossible,” emphasizes Adam Lelonek, PhD, Head of the Center for Propaganda and Disinformation Analysis. This is hardly the end of it. “The development of the Internet has broken the monopoly for official flow of information,” says Aleksandrowicz. “Today, anyone can create and distribute news – some average Joe with a Twitter or Facebook account. Let’s say that the account is followed by 100 people, 70 of whom pass the news on. Not many you say? True. But what if the aggressor creates, I don’t know, 50 identically thinking Joes?” he asks. The power of social media is tremendous. According to the results of opinion polls referred to by the expert, as many as 55 % of Americans have recently declared that they trust opinions of people like themselves more than mass media.
“Technological development, and consequently the amount of information we are flooded with, but also the evolution of ways to use such information, are progressing much faster than the social ability to adapt to the new conditions,” says Adam Lelonek. This fact gives rise to many challenges. According to Tomasz Aleksandrowicz, we have a big problem with verifying information that reaches us. “We feel strong in our own field of expertise, but the rest becomes elusive. If I tell you now that quantum computers are already widely available in Japan, will you be able to quickly evaluate if I am telling you the truth? Or the question of adopting the common European currency by Poland. I am a PhD in social studies and if someone asks me if I am for adopting the euro, I quote a joke and say: ‘I will gladly accept any amount.’ I am not a specialist in the subject, and there are so many various expert opinions that it is hard for me to determine who is right,” emphasizes Aleksandrowicz. Consequently, cyberspace users often close themselves in so-called filter bubbles. “They only read information they agree with. This in turn creates an incomplete perception of reality and makes such people susceptible to manipulation,” explains Lelonek. Info-aggressors gain huge space for their activity in all the information noise. It is especially true for countries such as Russia.
Adam Lelonek underlines that the attitude of non-democratic countries, such as the Russian Federation, to information policy is entirely different than that of the Western states. “On the Russian side, the actors in the information or psychological warfare are not only civilian and military specialists, or recruited agents of influence, but also Russian media, diplomats, politicians. It suffices to look at what happened after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal –who and in what way ridiculed the findings of the British, who claimed that he had been assassinated by Russian operators.” Moscow uses all possible means, treating the information environment and cyberspace as a unified whole, whereas the West is bound by standards governing democratic societies and limitations imposed by existing regulations. “Western societies are only starting to learn about modern information threats connected with using new technologies. Additionally, they consider information and psychological operations as separate from the issue of cyber-security, which makes it even more difficult for them to accurately and comprehensively assess Russia’s aggressive activities targeted at NATO and the EU, but also their individual members,” adds the specialist. Therefore, in many aspects, Russia has a huge head start in the information battle with the Western states.
“Good afternoon to citizens of Russia, residents of Crimea and Sevastopol,” began Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin’s Georgievsky reception hall shook with applause. On March 18, 2014, representatives of the State Duma, the Federation Council, heads of districts and other guests invited to the Kremlin gathered to hear the president announce the annexation of the region seized from Ukraine. Putin explained that Crimea had for centuries belonged to Russia, and now its people have decided by means of a democratic referendum that it should again be part of it. He also said that everything had been organized in full compliance with international regulations, which after all promote the idea of national self-determination. Addressing Ukrainians, he said: “Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that.” At the same time, he attacked the USA and their allies: “The West is cynically using “color” revolutions in order to impose its own standards, but instead causes chaos and outbreaks of violence.” And Russia? There was not a single shot fired in Crimea. On top of that, as Putin argued, the number of Russian troops deployed there did not increase over the numbers guaranteed in contracts concluded with Ukraine.
According to experts, the annexation of Crimea is a perfect example of extremely aggressive information warfare. “The Kremlin worked really hard to impose their own message. Russian society heard that the power in Kiev had been taken over by fascists and nationalists, who are additionally supported by the West, but Russia is strong again and will not let anyone harm its compatriots, even if they live outside Russian borders. Ukrainians got the signal saying: do not try to oppose, because you stand no chance anyway, while the West got the message that it is not dealing with Jelcyn’s weak Russia anymore, but a state that is back in the game of great politics,” explains Aleksandrowicz. When “little green men” appeared in Crimea, the case was as good as settled. The disoriented Ukraine gave up Crimea without putting up a fight.
Putin’s Russia conducts information war on many fronts. It is consequently building narrative on the discrimination of Russian-speaking minorities and recurrence of fascism in Latvia or Estonia, strives to maintain territorial disintegration in Georgia and Moldavia, and recently has also been targeting Belarus, which does not want to unite despite the Kremlin’s proposal to do so. However, it seems that war against Ukraine introduced a new quality. “The Russian army has such great potential that it could easily defeat and seize Ukraine. It doesn’t do that, though, simply because there is no such need. Russia reached its goal – it took Crimea from Ukraine, made it into a collapsing state, created a situation where there are no NATO forces deployed near Russian borders,” enumerates Aleksandrowicz.
Putin’s influence reaches much further, though. “It’s enough to mention the last presidential election in the USA, during which Russians were very active in the American social media, spreading fake news, manipulating discussions, activating radicals and escalating social polarization,” says Lelonek. “We can’t yet say with full certainty what influence those activities had on Donald Trump’s victory, but it was surely an example of another breakthrough in information and psychological warfare, and a real wake-up call for the West, especially the USA,” he adds.
What might be done then by the Western democracies?
Education Without Censorship
Fighting such an opponent is extremely difficult. Even if we disregard the activity of Internet trolls and bots, which flood social media and websites with pro-Russian, anti-Western or anti-Semitic comments, Russians have really put a lot of emphasis on the development of their media. “The national TV channel, RT, formerly Russia Today, is now broadcasting in English, Spanish, German, French, and Arabic, and is picked up all over the world. A Russian website platform Sputnik, on the other hand, has as many as 31 language versions, including Polish,” reminds Lelonek, adding it is not common knowledge in Poland that both subjects exist to implement the Kremlin’s foreign policy and describe reality according to Vladimir Putin’s needs. “As a result, RT, let’s say, is regarded by many people in the West as a legitimate source of information, simply presenting a different point of view than the BBC or the CNN. We mistakenly treat employees of such propaganda centers as media in the western sense,” emphasizes Lelonek. According to Tomasz Aleksandrowicz, the West too often allows itself to be manipulated by the narrative imposed by Russia. “In the light of international law, events that took place in Crimea were an act of aggression, forbidden by the Charter of the United Nations. My second-year students already know that. And how often has that term been used in our public space? The situation was similar with shooting down a Malaysian aircraft over Ukraine. I once had an opportunity to discuss this matter on television. The participants of the debate usually referred to it as an accident. What accident? We witnessed a typical crime,” emphasizes the expert.
“In order to organize effective defense against information warfare, it is necessary to create a defensive system based on some inviolable values, such as effective protection of our civilization assets, ensuring integrity of borders, maintaining and general acceptance of the state’s continuity, the feeling of national unity and consequent history-oriented policy based on facts,” enumerates Pac.
It is also crucial to educate the society. According to Adam Lelonek, we still have a lot of work as regards teaching people to comply with basic rules of information hygiene. “When we see that a piece of news, more or less sensational, is distributed by a portal which doesn’t publish any information on its owner or seat, and if it is hard to find out anything about the authors of such news, it should set off our alarm bells,” says the expert. “We should also be meticulous in distinguishing information from opinions. Here, a huge responsibility lies with the media, which should comply with binding standards and professional ethics. Unfortunately, in Poland, as well as in other states, it is still a very problematic area, which in consequence strengthens the position of alternative media supported by the Kremlin, spreading conspiracy theories or undermining global order. Another significant matter is a reasonable evolution of the legal system – on the one hand, we should avoid excessive censorship, but one the other we need tools to punish people using disinformation,” adds Lelonek. Tomasz Aleksandrowicz points out the necessity to create a highly specialized institution ready to neutralize acts of info-aggression and execute own operations. “It is also a big challenge for politicians. We need statesmen aware of the fact that national security is something that lies beyond political differences, and ready to work together in order to ensure it.”
autor zdjęć: Feodora/ Fotolia