Originally published 02/28/2014 on Maus Strategic Consulting.com.
The most recently released batch of Edward Snowden's leaked documents shows how intelligence agencies are using social media not just to predict events (protests and such), but to control online discussion and actively discredit targeted individuals through deception and dirty tricks.
Arguably, this is an extension of age-old tactics into the digital realm, but it may also represent one more instance of a new type of warfare that is secretly creeping up on us----one that can crash markets, destabilize governments, and incite insurgencies.
In April 2013 the Syrian Electronic Army hijacked the AP Twitter feed, proclaiming that the White House had been attacked and Obama injured. The claim spread widely and caused sent "stock markets down 1 percent in a matter of seconds,,,briefly wiping out $136 billion in value" CBS News Twitter accounts were hacked in similar incidents.
In December 2011, baseless rumors spread via Twitter sparked a bank run in Latvia, draining 1/3rd of one bank’s ATMs in the country and 10-15% of another’s over the course of a weekend (even with constant refilling of the ATMs) despite claims by both the bank and government that the rumors were untrue. Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis even alleged that the rumors had been spread deliberately “in an effort to destabilize the situation in Latvia,” launching a full police investigation of the incident.
It's a stretch to draw any sort of direct connection, but interestingly, just that very week, Russian protestors were drowned out by a sophisticated Twitter-bot swarm in the Russian presidential election, suggesting that forces affiliated with the Kremlin might the sort of capabilities related to such an attack.
In August of 2012, over 35,000 Indians of an ethnic minority fled in panic from their homes in response to text message threats apparently from Indian Muslims promising revenge for the ethnic clashes in Assam. This anger was apparently based on doctored photos and videos spread widely and quickly on Pakistani-based sites and social media groups which greatly exaggerated the violence against Muslims there. Indian officials, such as the federal Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde,alleged that this was a deliberate campaign by elements within Pakistan to stir ethnic strife and panic within India, requesting that Pakistan investigate, with some officials even claiming that the attacks were supported by the Pakistani government.
As the Guardian discussed in September 2011, the U.S. military was developing software through a company called Centcom in California to let operatives easily influence online discussion through mass sock-puppet accounts.
China's army of "50-Cent Party" members are paid to influence online discussion, apparently through very specific orders by the Propaganda Ministry. Estimates on the size of the 50-Cent Party vary somewhat, but an October 2013 Chinese state media report said that there were 2 million people in China employed to monitor the diffusion of opinions online, both within and outside of China.
It would also seem that the Chinese government is interested in closely monitoring the internal workings of Western newspapers. A series sophisticated cyber-infiltrations of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wallstreet Journal, were uncovered in early 2013. The investigating cyber-security firm Mandiant traced all of these infiltration operations back to the People's Liberation Army's Unit 61398 in their report.
One could argue that states have always tried to alter the public opinion of other states to suit their ends. The Cold War presents us with a number of peculiar examples, from the KGB supporting a number of Left-wing activist organizations in the U.S., to the CIA funding Abstract Expressionist art as an alternative to Socialist Realism. More generally, both sides spread propaganda, propped up puppet governments, toppled opposing regimes, and supported insurgencies aligned with their aims.
However, the social warfare of today has the potential to be simultaneously more devastating and more subtle than anything comparable in the past. As discussed in more depth here, social media and the countless other sources of information today offer an unprecedented wealth of information on how ideas spread, evolve, and impact behavior, allowing us to be truly scientific in manipulating of mass perception, belief, and behavior.
The wars of the 21st century may resemble some of the nightmares conceived by conspiracy theorists: governments using advanced technologies to secretly control our thinking.