Information Warfare Comes Home

Every day, there’s a war taking place on devices you carry in your pocket.

We are most certainly at the white-hot center of information warfare. There’s been plenty written about this, and I won’t retread it. But I do want to share an analysis that makes the argument that this war is far more aggressive, strategic, and frankly successful than you can imagine.

Renee DiResta wrote a powerful 7,000-word article for RibbonFarm, a home for long-read posts.

In it, she writes about the historical precedent and consequences of misunderstanding the changing nature of warfare.

“The combatants are professional, state-employed cyberwarriors and seasoned amateur guerrillas pursuing very well-defined objectives with military precision and specialized tools,” writes DiResta. This is not a bunch of amateurs messing around with the dark web.



"The most visible battlespaces are our online forums — Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — but the activity is increasingly spreading to old-school direct action on the streets, in traditional media outlets.” I would add Reddit to her list of online hotbeds.

This new war isn’t about capturing land as in previous conflicts. Instead, in the information war, the territory being won is the human mind.

This is at its core what the Mueller investigation is about. Did Russian government cyber-warriors attack us, and was the current President of the United States a knowing and willing participant?

It’s a charge fraught with global dangers.

And we could have seen it coming.  Marshall McLuhan wrote, “World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation” — and that was back in 1970.

DiResta reports that the U.S. government saw the threat as well, with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launching the Social Media in Strategic Communications program in 2011 to “preempt and prepare for an online propaganda battle.” It was shut down in 2015 after the threats were determined to be implausible.

Here’s how this warfare works, as DiResta explains it. Digital combatants — often thought of as trolls — pick a story to amplify, often with a short-term news hook. They create a meme, a video, a tweet, or a blog post. The trolls use a mix of human assets and automated “personas” to amplify the story. The message is then pushed into the feeds of sympathetic real people who will amplify it further. If it goes viral or triggers a trending algorithm, it will be pushed into the feeds of a huge audience. Members of the media will cover it, reaching millions more.

Can this problem be solved with better-automated review and editorial? Hardly. If the content is deemed false, it doesn’t matter, it will be taken down. And if amplifier bots get shut down — that really doesn’t matter, they’re easy to replicate.

And the future, as DiResta convincingly predicts it, will only get worse.

"AI-generated audio and video deepfakes will erode trust in what we see with our own eyes, leaving us vulnerable both to faked content and to the discrediting of the actual truth by insinuation. Authenticity debates will commandeer media cycles, pushing us into an infinite loop of perpetually investigating basic facts. Chronic skepticism and the cognitive DDoS will increase polarization, leading to a consolidation of trust in distinct sets of right and left-wing authority figures – thought oligarchs speaking to entirely separate groups.”

I am careful when I write to provide balance and reason. I don’t often shout. So here’s what I’m saying: The digital war that’s exploiting divisions in our society is most certainly WORD WAR III, the battle for our hearts and minds.

And I’ll let DiResta have  the last word: "What made democracies strong in the past — a strong commitment to free speech and the free exchange of ideas — makes them profoundly vulnerable in the era of democratized propaganda and rampant misinformation."

7 comments about "Information Warfare Comes Home".
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  1. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360, December 3, 2018 at 2:03 p.m.

    The bots are the key weapon. They make the attack (the falsified story) and audience reach seem far bigger and more effective than it really is. The "reach" of those faked FB posts during 2016 was nowhere near the 3 plus million reported, even by Facebook. You can't get that reach for what little they spent, It was amplification (sharing) by and between automated routines - bots. Among other things, that could enable the "companies" paid by their Russian handlers to inflate their success, perhaps improving the monetary reward or ensuring they'd stay on the payroll for future work. Think anyone actually audits the reported results?

  2. Ken Kurtz from creative license, December 5, 2018 at 4:30 p.m.

    Good Lord. Talk about talking out of both sides of a mouth! Last week it was all about how important it was for people to continue to stick with Fakebook (regardless of the ever-increasing detrimental effects attached to immersion in that fake world by more and more studies) and this week it's the war that is being waged on all the gullible Fakebookers that are so immersed.


    Your allusion to warfare conjured up the image of a thoroughly stoned Elvis being deputized by Tricky Dick Nixon in the Oval Office to help him wage his "War on Drugs" in 1970. Never mind that Elvis was found dead on his toilet not many years after that with over 20 drugs in his system... the "War on Drugs" has carried on, even in the absence of Deputy Agent Elvis Presley's karate chops.

    Almost five decades later, the "War on Drugs" has resulted in nothing except more, and more dangerous recreational drugs flooding our drug loving American streets (at lower, and lower costs), and more bad guys making more billions in profits from America's ongoing love affair with the "alteration of consciousness."

    Just check out fentanyl, the synthetic heroin that's coming in from China in great quantities, thanks to the US government's ongoing "War on Drugs." One packet in a breast pocket is worth millions of dollars, and is far more dangerous than real heroin, the byproduct of the poppy plant. One grain too many will kill you too (so condensed has it become for easier deceptive importation), which is why our current "opioid crisis" has clearly been exacerbated by this "War."

    If you're struggling for a connection, how about the fact that immersion in Fakebook's false world is yet another addictive form of "altered consciousness?" Oh, those satisfying dopamine hits!

    Not a lot to be done, except stay the hell off Fakebook, and stay the hell off drugs. The real wars are inner ones. And there's not a damn thing that inneffective, inneffectual, and inefficient government can do to help. It's only capable of exacerbating things...

  3. Steve Rosenbaum from NYC Media Lab replied, December 7, 2018 at 2:11 p.m.

    Thank you, Henry - very well put. And agree that the bots confuse the algorithms, which then increase the 'popularity' of the Fake material through popularity. The problem is that the Fakers are highly incentivized to invent and re-invent novel solutions, while the platforms are only moderately interested in fighting a losing battle.  

  4. Steve Rosenbaum from NYC Media Lab replied, December 7, 2018 at 2:14 p.m.

    Kenny - so if I read you correctly - you're suggesting a federal campaign like the war on drugs for social media? "Don't Do Facebook!" Don't Do Reddit!" Don't Do Instagram!" Don't Do SnapChat!" - have you considered going into the t-shirt business? You could make a fortune. 

  5. Ken Kurtz from creative license, December 7, 2018 at 3:20 p.m.

    You're not a very good reader. Wars on things that are bad for us don't work. Never have, and never will. They only make matters worse. Look at the 18th Amendment to our Consitution for an example.

    Your notion that there is some sort of information war is absurd. I'm not on social media. So no "information soldiers" can be firing their weapons at me, right? You're creating fake wars. You encourage people to be on these idotic, and fake platforms (proven to be detrimental to human beings in a multitude of ways by study after study) and then write nonsenical pieces about how engagement in these fantasy worlds is even worse than the studies demonstrate! PTSD is now part and parcel to the ridiculous waste of time that being on social media is according to Rosenbaum.

    If nobody's wasting their time on social media to alter their consciousness, nobody can be a victim of your fake "information warfare." If people stopped engaging with drugs, then our dumbass government wouldn't need a "War on Drugs" that has pissed away trillions of taxpayer dollars, and done nothing except make drugs cheaper, more available, and appealing to more people. 

  6. Ken Kurtz from creative license, December 8, 2018 at 8:26 a.m.

    Final thought. 

    Paradoxical. Paradox truly rules the day. And our government's ridiculous "War on Drugs" bears that out.

    Alcohol is this country's most dangerous, debilitating, and deadly recreational drug. More Americans die from alcohol annually than die from every other recreational drug known to mankind combined. Heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, peyote, "Molly," "K," marijuana, barbiturates, prescription drugs, you name it. Alcohol kills more Americans every year than all those other recreational drugs combined. Yet all we hear from the media is what scourges all those other drugs are.

    Alcohol kills 300% more Americans every year than GUNS do (67% of gun deaths are suicides). And all we hear from the media is what a scourge guns are.

    18th Amendment to our Constitution made the manufacture, sale, distribution, and ingestion of the recreational drug alcohol ENTIRELY illegal. And manufacture, sale, distribution, and ingestion only increased, only "illegally," with criminals running things and collecting the billions in profits, and providing a far more dangerous and deadly drug.

    Fast forward to today. We have the Chinese importing far more deadly synthetic heroin "fentanyl" and killing more than ever. All thanks to our current prohibition on recreational drugs. The "War" that pisses away $50,000,000,000 in taxpayer dollars (that's billion) to do nothing other than make more drugs more available, more dangerous, more deadly, and cheaper. $50 billion per year toward the "War on Drugs" and that's the amount that has been expended virtually every year since Tricky Dick Nixon decided to "get tough" on drugs in 1970. And all our government's done is bolstered a criminal black market intent upon getting more than their fair share of the billions in profits.


  7. Ken Kurtz from creative license, December 8, 2018 at 8:39 a.m.

    More paradox.

    Headline in today's New York Times...


    The Old Gray Lady is referring to payments that Trump may have approved to a Playboy Playmate, and a porn star that has now been entirely discredited (her shyster lawyer too), for sex acts that were consensual (if they occurred at all) while celebrity, billionaire businessman Trump was FAR REMOVED from the Oval Office.

    Offering payments to women to keep indiscretions like this quiet IS NOT ILLEGAL, but even the NY Times is complicit in THE FAKENESS.

    Paradox. Trump probably would have gotten more votes if those women hadn't taken his money, and actually did share about their "trysts" with "The Donald" before the election, while he was a private citizen.

    Not my vote, but plenty of others. Everything that the left characterizes as abhorrent behavior on his part (far less so than Kennedy's, or Clinton's behaviors while in office), and worthy of sinking Trump's ship only floats his boat higher.


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