Twitter: Information Warfare, Propaganda and the ‘Troll’

This abstract came across an interesting blog post today, which is recommended reading for anyone using the Twitter platform:

http://ukraineatwar.blogspot.nl/2014/05/how-to-spot-russian-twitter-troll.html

The author provides some examples of accounts and strategies which are claimed to source from Russian Intelligence.

The cases and arguments made are broadly correct, however, there are some important details and concepts missing which targets – that is anyone who is not sourcing this way – should be aware of.

i) Accounts which send gibberish, hostile links and/or offensive / inappropriate media.

These are attempted direct attacks through the Twitter platform targetting individuals, with the aim of compromising the remote machine, or producing a negative reaction.

With certain media content this may be sent with a view to discredit or bring unwarranted criminal action against the target. To the latter point, the following could constitute a credible example:

http://www.politics.co.uk/news/2014/03/04/shock-in-downing-street-after-no-10-adviser-arrested-on-chil

ii) China et al.

This abstract has directly observed accounts purporting to source from China attempting to engage in exactly the same activities as the Russian accounts: In some instances, in tandem. 

Consider carefully:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/20/china-reacts-furiously-us-cyber-espionage-charges

This should not distract from Russian activity, but in focusing on Russian ‘Trolls’ it would leave a target more susceptible to an attack from another source. On this point, this abstract raises an eye-brow towards the remote blog author.

iii) The ‘Troll’ Label

This humble abstract would like to point out that labelling information warfare operatives as ‘Trolls’ simplifies matters a bit. As ‘Troll’ has become a label distorted to apply to folk on Twitter who express a differing opinion – most notably abused by those on the political Left and/or Liberals – one needs to be again cautious.

Trolls are easy to spot and filter. Information warfare agents are not so easy.

Stifling discussion on the Twitter platform through abuse of the ‘Troll’ label constitutes a direct attack on the individual of the nature of which the article is warning about.

iv) Dezinformatsiya: The art of disinformation.

Disinformation is very simple: It is false information.

The principal aim of projecting false information is to spread false knowledge among the target population with a view to discrediting individuals, corporations or governments, or seeding dissent.

In the UK, ‘Bedroom Tax’ is a good example of a dezinformatziya campaign: The tax in question was no such thing, but a reform to the benefits system where a spare room subsidy for people in state provided accommodation  was withdrawn.

False projections of the intentions of the EU, or outright hostile ‘rumour’ also qualify as good examples, as do false or ‘erroneous’ stories about politicians which are released in ‘smear’ campaigns aimed at discrediting.

More information on the advanced methods which were developed in the Soviet Union here:

http://www.heretical.com/miscella/dinform.html

The reader should be aware that individuals are generally biased towards accepting negative propaganda with a higher probability than positive, a phenomena well understood:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_calling

v) Maskirovka: The art of deception

Accounts which purport to be what they are not fall into this category directly.

Hostile ‘Parody’ accounts which are not clearly identifiable as such are somewhat blatant.

Those accounts which appear to be regular people, as identified in the above article, fall into this category also. The strategy of information warfare is not all immediate. In order for accounts to build credibility, hence making them more effective ‘weapons’ for dissemination of propaganda takes time.

The aim is to provide a mechanism which carries ‘authority’ or is otherwise trusted in the eyes of the target from which dezinformatsiya and propaganda can be injected.

More information here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maskirovka

vi) Provokatsiya: The art of provocation

This is perhaps the most dangerous and insidious of the techniques as it essentially relies on manipulating your targets to do your work for you.

Whilst this includes techniques such as false flagging and ‘agent-provocateur’, there is a more subtle aspect which is less obvious.

This article from the BBC explains how provokatsiya is applied in the media:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/blogcollegeofjournalism/posts/Russian-media-and-the-art-of-provokatsiya-

This blog post provides further details:

http://20committee.com/2014/03/29/understanding-provocation/

In summary: The technique aims to discredit either individuals or institutions, usually targeting political ideas of specific policies, through subversion of the perception and belief systems of the target. That is: Changing the targets opinions and beliefs in a specific way in order to satisfy the objectives of the attacker.

vii) A coherent strategy: Active Measures

In the information space which Twitter and the internet inhabit, provokatsiya works best when combined carefully with maskirovka and dezinformatsiya. This is not exclusively an immediate attack strategy or a single one. Some strategies will have been running for a while.

For more information on this overarching strategy:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_measures

The following is also recommended:

http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/39024/john-c-campbell/dezinformatsia-active-measures-in-soviet-strategy-new-lies-for-o

It should be understood that many ‘Conspiracy Theories’ are Active Measure campaigns, and these are run against targets by both sides. The rational is the same though: To subvert the belief system and rational judgement of the targets for a predetermined end.

The following blog post raises an interesting question also:

http://20committee.com/2012/07/10/is-it-still-a-conspiracy-theory-when-they-admit-it/

Defence

The best line of defence in information warfare is: Awareness.

Being aware of the strategies which are being used against you, and understanding how to detect them and if necessary, help counter and reduce their probability of success.

This process of detection can also be described as: Counter Intelligence.

Critical reading and filtering of information is the primary defence.

a) Be aware of the basic principals of propaganda:

http://www.psywarrior.com/Goebbels.html

In particular, the following principal is worth keeping in mind at all times:

‘Credibility alone must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false’

In order for propaganda to work it needs to be accepted and internalized by the target. A target is unlikely to accept propaganda if it is incredible.

It is also important to be aware that comments or opinions which match personal prejudice or beliefs will more likely be agreed with by a target, and will resonate in the target.

b) Before forming an opinion or belief, try to check the source.

If the source is from an authoritative one which is trusted it should be safer. Note that the Russian RT network has proven itself to be a hostile source, despite it’s appearance.

Sources are important: Before entrusting they should be checked.

Anonymous sources – like this one – should be judged carefully.

Transparency on sourcing for information / opinion given is paramount. (ie. If you have read this far, check the links and decide if this source is hostile or not)

Hostile intent should also be weighed carefully.

c) As a final check, ask: Cui Bono ?

‘Who benefits from me adopting this belief, or acting – or indeed reacting – to this information in a certain way ?’

There are no hard and fast rules as the nature of the game is ultimately one of manipulation and coercion, and both sides are playing by the same rules, and sometimes with similar objectives.

Being unaware of what is happening does leave a target completely unprotected.

 

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