by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
“World War III will be a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.” – Marshall McLahun
I noticed it during the 2016 election. My Twitter and Facebook accounts were awash in anti-Hillary comments. Many comments seemed to piggy-back on my own reservations about her. Other comments were wildly inaccurate and mean-spirited.
I was a Bernie supporter and not happy with the way the DNC and Democratic leadership conducted the primaries. Still, Hillary Clinton was clearly a normal candidate while, in my view, Donald Trump was not normal on many levels. I could never be persuaded to vote for Donald Trump.
When anti-Hillary messages mirrored my concerns I sometimes “liked” the comments or added my own in support of my views. When outrageously false anti-Hillary claims were posted I mostly ignored them, but sometimes took issue. This would often lead to a running debate with some implacable troll on social media. I debated them, not to change their minds (impossible), but to make sure others reading these posts would be exposed to a more reasonable set of facts and opinions.
During these social media debates I noticed a lot of others respondents chiming in with “likes” or retweets opposing my views. The longer I pressed the debate, the greater the number of these mostly silent opposition supporters grew Sometimes as many as 20 or 30 different respondents would like, share or retweet my opponent’s posts, even days after the conversation ended. Some of these follow-on’s appeared to bolster randomly stupid or meaningless statements made by the Hillary hater.
That’s when I realized something unusual was happening. My assumption was that all these respondents were part of a coordinated system of trolls. I resisted the feeling that I was in the minority, because my independent research confirmed that I held majority views. But I did get the feeling that somehow I was talking to myself.
Suddenly, after the election, all these feverish Twitter and Facebook respondents disappeared. Did you also notice that?
Only now, through my curiosity and continuing review of articles on internet propaganda, am I beginning to realize the full horror of what I experienced during the election. I was under a sophisticated psychological attack.
Propaganda as we commonly think of it today involves what spies call “active measure” used to demoralize or destabilize civilian populations in times of war. Dropping fliers from airplanes, broadcasting news on Radio Free Europe, writing op-ed pieces under pseudonyms or stealing classified documents and releasing them publicly to embarrass adversaries are examples that come to mine. More recent examples include false flag attacks or leaking fake information that appears to be damaging but then proving it is wrong when your opponent tries to use it against you. This technique damages the credibility of your opposition instead.
The Russian connection to the DNC email hacks and subsequent Wikileaks publication appears to be the next generation of “active measures” propaganda. Gallons of ink have been used exploring these events to prove that Russia interferred in our elections. And they did. This is all well and good. but at its root the only thing new about this sort of propaganda is the sophisticated hacking used to steal the documents. Otherwise, it is old style propaganda. Media attention to it only serves as a distraction to the whole new world of electronic propaganda unleashed on us during the election. These are new, covertly developed military grade techniques never used on this scale before a few years ago (in the BREXIT, Vote Leave Campaign, Read the first article in the bibliography below.).
COGNITIVE WARFARE: Cognitive warfare is a toolbox of cyber propaganda techniques that both models mass populations and profiles individuals to change their beliefs or attitudes. It has many aspects and methods that utilize super-computers, massive databases and sophisticated computer algorithms to weaponize information gathered from our digital footprints to use against us. Some techniques model and manipulate whole societies to bring about social change while other techniques profile and manipulate individuals or groups to alter a person’s attitudes and behavior. These methods go by names such as Bio-psycho-social profiling, Recoding (of mass consciousness), Strategic drowning (of mainstream media content, for example), micro-targeted propaganda, etc. These propaganda techniques can be highly effective and operate on an emotional level without our specific awareness.
So where to begin? The amount of information needed to fully explain the new propaganda is way beyond the scope of this blog post. It is honestly beyond the scope of my own understanding at this point as well. This article can only serve as an introduction to the topic. At the conclusion I will point you to several lengthy articles that go into more detail.
ALGORITHMS: To understand the basics of cognitive warfare methods we must start with computer algorithms. These are sets of computer code instructions that allow a computer to analyze huge amounts of data and automatically make complex decisions for further action based on their continuous analysis. Algorithms can be simple or mind-bendingly complex, as their use in modern day financial trading illustrates. In the area of financial investments algorithms monitor the markets and social media sites (like Twitter, to see what’s trending) and then make split-second decisions on buying and selling stocks. It is estimated that over 70% of all stock trades are computer generated transactions.
But algorithms are ubiquitous in social media as well. From Google’s search engine to Twitter’s suggestions as to who to follow, algorithms have become our window on the world. As such they have an enormous impact on our outlook. Each of us who searches a term on Google may receive different information in a different order, depending on our digital footprint on the internet. This impacts our thinking. Robert Epstein, of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology says,”.. these personalized results impact our opinions and behavioral patterns without our awareness.” Of Google he writes, “We are talking about the most powerful mind-control machine ever invented in the history of the human race. And people don’t even notice it.”
There is much more we need to know about these algorithms running in the background of the cyber world, but for our purposes here it is sufficient to know that a knowledge of them and how to manipulate and exploit them is the basis on which cognitive warfare operates.
BIO-PSYCHO-SOCIAL PROFILING: When I type “Daily Record” into my iPhone search, my local newspaper site come up. Years ago this wasn’t the case. I would get a newspaper with that name in Scotland. We don’t think much about the convenience built into our media systems that allows computers to make assumptions about us. These assumptions are based on our digital profile, where we live, where we are presently located, what we have looked up in the past and other such personal information kept in a database about us somewhere. This is the friendly face of social profiling.
Advances in data storage and retrieval systems, sophisticated algorithms, and methods to analyze and manage massive amounts of data allow media platforms to develop comprehensive profiles on us. This allows them to deliver the content we most want to see. Formerly, the level of detail was based on some grouping we fit into, but increasingly it is based on who we are as individuals. This has been a boon to commercial marketing but it has a very powerful dark side as well.
In the case of Facebook profiles, for example, scientists found that profiles can be correlated across millions of people to produce remarkably accurate individual profiles. When results are combined with data generated by the “like” button people click on approve certain content, the individual profile gets ever more perfect. With just 150 “likes” our profile can predict personality better than our own spouses can, and with 300 likes it knows a person better they know themselves.
Of this profiling data, Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Swiss mathematician, said, “People just don’t understand the power of this data and how it can be used against them.” This level of understand our personality allows those in control of our profiles to send micro-targeted messages to us that subtlety manipulate our feelings and the association with which our emotions are evoked. For example, if a person is on the fence over how to vote in an election, the people behind the propaganda machines know this about you and can custom tailor messages to that will influence you to vote one way or the other. This technique is called micro-targeted propaganda. There is evidence that this type of propaganda was used in the 2016 election to help elect Donald Trump.
STRATEGIC DROWNING: This is another tool in the Cognitive Warfare arsenal used to influence public discourse and alter our mass consciousness. While bio-psycho-social profiling targets individuals, this technique targets certain segments of the population or even the whole population at once. The idea behind this technique it to flood the cyber-media network with specific alternative messages that drown out conventional news and information. It exploits the algorithms used by media platforms that bring desired content to us. So, for example, if you type “Jews are” into Google search, it will return answers like, “Why do people hate Jews” I just did the experiment as I write this and the picture below shows the top results.
Clearly these are unexpected results for most people who might enter the search terms. (Try it yourself, and don’t be surprised if your results differ from mine based on your profile.) The result over-represent hate groups and the proliferation of these results are the work of nefarious operators who flood the “media ecosystem.”
Cyber media would normally be dominated by conventional information sources such as The New York Times, Fox News, MSNBC etc., but these sources are swamped with hundreds of thousands of links from much smaller alternative information sites. These links to alternative information are intended to exploit the structure of Google secret algorithms to bring these articles to the top of the search results. This has a psychological impact on us personally and gives a false impression about public consensus in America. It blurs the question as to what is really true.
The operational structure for strategic drowning includes a coordinated network of alternative information websites, referred to as micro-propaganda machines, or MPM’s. Each MPM controls a vast warehouse of “bots” which are bogus Facebook and Twitter accounts, etc. These fake accounts exist by the hundreds of thousands. Some are always active to drive public dialogue while some are “sleeper bots.” These are held in reserve and triggered en mass by propagandists to overwhelm news cycles or cover up information unfavorable to their goals. It is also used to create trends and alter public discourse, or change public attitudes.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Jonathan Albright is an assistant professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina. He analyzed the activity of these MPM’s during the 2016 election and was able to create “spatial map” of that activity. The picture created shows the relative dominance of traditional information sources in the media ecosystem, as he calls it, and the impact on that system by MPM’s during the election. The red nodes are alternative information (propaganda) websites and the red lines radiating from them are links or activity of these sites.
In effect, what you see here is the cognitive warfare battlefield during the last election. This new propaganda arms race is between pro-democracy advocates and their adversaries. It is a war still being waged here and in other Western democracies. It is being waged by both foreign attackers and billionaire Western oligarchs who share converging interests. It is being waged by Russia, who just announced the creation of a new branch of their military calling them “information warfare troops”.
“… Russians have moved into an offensive posture that threatens the very international order.” said Ben Rhodes of the Obama Administration last year.
The propaganda war is also being waged by billionaire controlled corporations specializing in this field, companies like Cambridge Analytica. This is essentially a propaganda company featuring Steve Bannon on its board of directors.
This outline of Cognitive Warfare attacks we were subjected to, and are still experiencing as an attack on our journalism institutions, helps make sense of my social media experiences during the election. I see now how I was being stroked, on one hand (micro-targeted), to fan my discontent with Hillary while being made to feel my views were in the minority (strategic drowning) on the other hand. I know now that many of the trolls I encountered were really computer generated cyberbots. All this has caused be to completely rethink my own on-line presence.
I have presented a great deal of information here and a number of quotes and facts without specific attribution. That is because virtually all of the quotes and many of the fact are from the remarkable work of Carole Cadwalladr, published by The Guardian in London. I have vetted her information by going to her original source and found them to be accurate. If you have stayed with me to this point, I urge you to read Ms. Cadwalladr’s two article for even more background information. She also outlines the connections between the companies providing propaganda services for the wealthy ideologues funding them and the Trump administration.
Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage Carole Cadwalladr, 26 February, 2017
Google, democracy and the truth about internet search https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/04/google-democracy-truth-internet-search-facebook Carole Cadwalladr, 4 December, 2016
The #Election2016 Micro-Propaganda Machine https://medium.com/@d1gi/the-election2016-micro-propaganda-machine-383449cc1fba#.gl16j8e9c Jonathan Albright, 18 November, 2016
And for further reading from my blog on algorithms,
Algorithms Hidden Impact on How We Think http://aseyeseesit.blogspot.com/2017/02/algorithms-hidden-impact-on-how-we-think.html?spref=tw …
Brian T. Lynch, 9 February, 2016
Thank you. This reinforces my decision that I did the right thing in leaving Facebook–even if for different reasons.
Thank you. This reinforces my responsibility to seek out the true facts before forming an opinion.