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Chaos, misinformation and fake news are a threat to Western democracy, writes Joep Gommers, CEO and co-founder of threat intelligence product company EclecticIQ. He outlines the impact of psychological operations on elections and the democratic process.
Democracy in the West is widely believed to be under threat. Many people cried foul when Donald Trump seized victory by a relatively slim margin in the 2016 US presidential elections, giving rise to claims of election hacking. A cyber-attack, alleged to have been co-ordinated by the Russian government was reported as having targeted the machines used to register votes in order to deliver a fraudulent result. And yet, while these machines, in common with all computers, were found to possess vulnerabilities that could be exploited by bad actors, they should not necessarily have been a prime area of focus. Indeed, despite a great deal of concern, no security glitches were detected in the recent US mid-terms.
This type of hacking is actually a rare sight in elections. In the US, as with most large democratic countries, international law requires oversight over major elections. External observers are employed to ensure that machines honestly and accurately report how people vote. As a result, it is highly unlikely that these machines will be used to influence the democratic process in any significant way. The bigger threat to democracy, and one that is rarely out of the headlines today, is the use of psychological operations – misinformation, or ‘fake news’ – to change public opinion to a particular politically or economically motivated agenda.
Information and misinformation
Psychological warfare and information operations are standard tactics when entering an area of conflict.
Traditionally, winning hearts and minds would involve fairly rudimentary methods such as agents on the ground speaking with locals, or distributing pamphlets explaining why the force was entering the region, and what it was trying to achieve. A more sophisticated approach would be to recruit heads of businesses or particular areas as advocates; people who held a degree of trust with the population, or with certain factions or leaders. It was common practice to buy into a number of trade houses, for example, and use them to spread the word.
This has now moved into the digital realm. With everyone online, it is possible for a nation state, an agency, or a solo actor to flood entire groups of people with information they want them to care about, or with misinformation they would like to be interpreted as truth. Intelligence agencies have been honing such skills for decades, influencing the thoughts and beliefs of large parts of a country’s population. Indeed, the U.S. often employed such methods when enforcing regime change in South America or Africa. Now, though, the same psychological warfare and information operations tactics are being applied to influence the democratic processes of Western countries, particularly by Russia.
From the military to the civil domain
Although it has never been admitted, there is a general consensus that Russia has moved online in an attempt to disrupt Western democracy. Take, for example, the series of campaigns targeting the United States, with the aim of diminishing its ability to trade, causing civil unrest, and destabilising its government. Hackers famously infiltrated the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC’s) network before and during the 2016 elections, resulting in a serious data breach; part of a series of cyber campaigns that the US intelligence community concluded were orchestrated by Russian intelligence to assist Donald Trump in his presidential campaign.
Facebook and other social media were also used in attempts to subvert the democratic process, with antagonists buying space on the sites and filling it with carefully created content that spoke to a particular sentiment. These messages worked in one of two ways, the first of which was sowing confusion and chaos. Whenever a public servant made a statement, Facebook would be flooded with contrary messages, designed to provoke a negative response. The second was the dissemination of misinformation. Insightful, well-written content containing ‘fake news’ would be widely spread in order to influence how and what people thought about a particular subject, and ultimately influence the way in which they voted. These are no military exercises, however. Campaigns such as these are happening on a vast scale, carried out by dedicated ‘web brigades’. Russia took what was once a military capability and brought it into the civil domain and, by doing so, created something way beyond the traditional models of psychological influence.
Looking to the future
There will undoubtedly be many more examples of election hacking and attempts to influence the democratic process. It is likely too that we will see a rise in nation states using information operations to influence how a population thinks. And this can be very dangerous. When people lose trust in democracy, space opens up for extreme forms of populism, on either end of the political spectrum. We are already seeing a rise in populism across the world. Social networks are increasingly being used to spread misinformation and confusion and erode our faith in the system of government. And we do not yet see any solutions to these problems. Rather than just focusing on the technicalities of information operations by nation states, and WHAT they are influencing, we should perhaps be looking at HOW they are influencing, and just what that means for society.