Information warfare. Journalists are the target, manipulation is a tool

When information becomes a weapon

Thanks to the development of the internet and new technologies, it’s now relatively easy to conduct a mass attack on entire societies – says Kamil Basaj from the Safe Cyberspace Foundation in an interview on Kremlin’s propaganda, information warfare and the new Russian doctrine.

Edyta Żemła: On December 5, 2016, Vladimir Putin approved the new information safety doctrine in Russia. Russians seem to attribute particular value to their information space. The former Chief of the General Staff, Army General Yuri Baluyevsky, said that information war is now coming to the fore. We know information is a weapon, but how powerful can it really be?

Kamil Basaj: It’s an age-old thing: right pieces of information presented in the right way and in the right moment, aimed at carefully selected people, would always become a weapon. It can help affect people’s actions and attitudes and allows to manipulate entire communities.

Our times are different because of the space and tools, which allow the easy transfer of information. Thanks to rapid development of the internet and modern technologies, it has become relatively easy to conduct a mass attack on entire societies, chosen cognitive areas or strategic objects.

Information has become a weapon that is both common and easy to wield, accordingly to the aggressor’s plans. Objectives and targets can vary, methods remain similar.

Does the information safety doctrine set out for defensive or offensive actions? Are we now at risk of Russia aggressively affecting the information space?

The doctrine encapsulates a wide array of offensive capabilities – all hiding under a propaganda claim of defending Russia’s own society and information space from foreign invasion. The official pitch is a defensive one, but in practice, it opens up many paths for aggressive activities. It includes a number of clauses implying that Russia is under threat of foreign interference, which is in line with official propaganda messages presenting Russia as a country that is entrapped and under imminent threat.

Let’s take the concept of Russophobia. It became weaponized and is now commonly used against Russia’s political and geopolitical opponents, as well as a tool for the country’s historical propaganda or foreign policy. Pretty much anyone whose comments or opinions are not in line with Russia’s information policy can be deemed a Russophobe.

How can such influence be used and organized?

Informational influence is carried out on many levels. Propaganda and disinformation make the first level. It can be recognized fairly easily by checking whether an article or journalistic material was written at a certain angle, whether it is narrated suggestively or includes any hidden messages in its rhetoric or visuals.

The second layer of influencing, is the process of distributing propaganda material that has been mixed with real information, such as original publications. This is so-called hybrid material – a message that in substance is close to the original, produced by Russian propaganda centers, but its content has been changed.

Are you referring to blogs and social media platforms?

The blogosphere is a very sensitive area of propaganda influence. The opponent is using our Western legal system, our values, the freedom of speech. They know they can take over it all. And if they do, blogosphere will become one of the spaces of the information war. It is much easier to distinguish and track down a website distributing pro-Russian or propaganda information than to point out a blogger sharing such contents.

What makes Russian propaganda so keenly accepted in Poland and in other V4 countries?

In order for informational influence to be effective, it must be projected onto particular recipient groups. The opponent provides different types of information, depending on the results they are hoping to achieve. They create and compose messages in a way that meets the recipients’ needs, while building a suggestive cognitive environment.

In these messages, the Russian Federation is presented as a guardian of peace, order and traditional, pan-Slavic values. It stands in opposition to faltering Europe, weakened by waves of refugees and under attack from such communities as LGBT minorities. This way the opponent can play on the recipients’ gullibility, as well as create an informational environment around them, that is supposed to harvest certain results.

There are plenty of tropes employed as part of informational warfare. Simply speaking, the objective is to present ideas that are good and peaceful in opposition to a threat. The main purpose is to ignite a sense of insecurity that is strongly connected to an emotional response. And when emotions are kept on the right level, they make it much easier for the target audience to absorb information.

Is information supposed to evoke emotional response?

Yes. Emotions are at the next stage of influencing. The opponent employs emotions to strengthen the psychological aspect of communication. This way, communication becomes more dangerous for the recipients. Emotional response also allows to stimulate recipient’s awareness levels. It often requires just a few simple tools: colors, sounds, skillfully applied suggestive techniques, illustrations and visuals.

Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu, has recently revealed that Russia has formed „information operations” troops. It has also been reported that during the „Caucasus-2016” maneuvers the army has, for the first time in history, practiced „information warfare” against mock opponent. How do they organize those units?

Mr. Shoygu’s words could just as well be simply a statement meant to stay in line with propaganda communication strategy. He wanted to evoke certain reactions, but we still don’t know much about the project itself. According to Russian media and to the Ministry of National Defense, there are several operational centers, whose job is to influence information environments in order to carry out Russian strategy and doctrines of information warfare.

Are we talking about troll factories?

Calling them „troll factories” diminishes the role of those centers. They are the means of carrying out information operations. The most famous center, Olgino in St. Petersburg, has several departments that work on preparing and carrying out informational influencing.

It doesn’t mean a group of a few hundred people who sit in front of their computers are capable of carrying out certain operations in the information space. The people who work in those centers – sometimes called „Russian trolls” or „network brigades” – can carry out technical aspects of their missions, but the operation must be appropriately prepared, addressed and executed beforehand. The success largely depends on the opponent’s defense mechanisms and on the target’s weaknesses: which incentives are met with impulsive reactions and which are received calmly.

For example – people in Poland are afraid of the refugees, and therefore their fears are being intensified through those methods you’re referring to?

Russia has several major narratives. They are applied differently in various countries. The narrative based on the refugee crisis is heavily exploited through presenting European Union as an organization that is bound to collapse soon. However, this operation is not founded on a singular strategy. Information space has been experiencing increase in propaganda publications that present Russia as cultural alternative to weak and faltering Europe.

It should be noted that Russia exploits and addresses information differently in various countries. Negative portrayal of NATO alliance in Slovakia often has a different information background than it does in the social media in Poland. Since the Alliance enjoys very high support levels in Poland, Russia knows it will not be easy to revert this tendency. So it redirects its efforts and tries to affect how we perceive our allies instead.

What topics tend to be exploited by the Russian propaganda in Poland?

In the Cybersecurity Foundation we research the influence of the Russian Federation on the Polish infosphere. According to results from May 2017, we can measure attacks of varied frequency on a number of information areas. The main objectives are as follows, we can count them:

  1. To encourage positive attitudes towards the expected Poland-Russia relationship;
  2. To perpetuate negative image of the European Union;
  3. To perpetuate negative image of the United States’ foreign policy;
  4. To perpetuate a negative image of Poland;
  5. To dismiss Poland’s defensive capabilities;
  6. To perpetuate negative image of the internal situation in the Ukraine;
  7. To encourage positive image of Russia in relation to the war in Syria;
  8. To dismiss alliance relationship between NATO, Poland and USA;
  9. To manipulate information on Poland’s energy sector.

General Waldemar Skrzypczak once recalled his meeting with a French military. The man asked him why Poles are Russophobes, and why we are so determined to start a war with Russia. Is this how Russian propaganda presents Poland to the world?

I’m not surprised to see that our opponent is creating a negative image of Poland and Polish people. Russia endeavors to present us in a negative light in front of our allies and partners in the European Union. And vice versa. Our social media also perpetuate information that paint a negative image of Germany, France, Italy or Spain. They are presented as those Alliance members who will not raise to our defense. Let’s not forget that in France there is a number of rather active media outlets, such as Russia Today or Sputnik. Their materials are widely distributed through numerous social media accounts and can be quite influential.

How does this mechanism work?

Among other techniques, readers are manipulated into believing that they have reached certain conclusions by themselves, while in fact they were subject to reflexive model of informational influencing. It is a very effective strategy in the information warfare.

We are researching this phenomenon in our Cybersafety Foundation. We aim to illustrate how the opponent shapes their messages, how the texts are written and how the suggestive layers are implemented. Then we check how the information is delivered to recipients.

Another important issue are certain actions in cyberspace, such as websites hacking and uploading fake reports, or directional information attacks that are meant to weaken the country’s defenses, such as fake interviews.

When we see fake interviews with Polish generals, or read online about alleged rapes of Polish women by American soldiers, should we recognize it as journalistic mistakes or influence operations?

The information about the rape case came from an anonymous message, received by a journalist of a local news website. He was hoping this story would earn him a very quick success. This example showcases a problem regarding media culture, but it also proves that readers are developing unhealthy habits when it comes to digesting information. Those occurrences are just two from many similar cases of efforts to direct the attention of journalists towards a subject that the opponent knows to be attractive to them.

Are journalists susceptible to such techniques? What is their role in information warfare?

Journalists are one of the targets. Their articles are the substance of information environment. The opponent’s objective is to gain influence on reporters’ cognitive process as well. It’s one of the techniques employed in the information war. It’s supposed to encourage recipients to seek for alternative sources of information or to base their articles on untrue or manipulated information. The initiators often expect to work on those processes for  years.

And does it work?

We are an information society. According to the Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS) study, the generation aged 18 to 40 – so those most active – uses the internet constantly. A staggering 90% of those people are constantly connected to social media. This brings us to the problem of our culture of digesting information. We are interested in headlines, titles, images. Our opponent taps into those habits.

They take an article similar to the original, but lace it with suggestive undertones. Sometimes they change a title, but not always. This manipulation technique is no longer propaganda or disinformation – it’s a typical information operation. It involves manipulating contents of articles written by regular people or by journalists. This is yet another form of information influencing, distributed through forums, social media and blogosphere.

Suggestive layer – what is it?

It is the right choice of words, used in the right parts of the text, in the right order. It’s not always sophisticated. Adding certain words or phrases to the text can turn around the whole message of an article. Here’s a very simple example: manipulating the article about NATO. The original phrase: „NATO’s endeavors” is replaced with „NATO’s imperialist endeavors”. Add a suggestive title and headliner to the manipulated content and a regular article has been morphed into propaganda material.

It’s the easiest for Russian propaganda to infiltrate radical groups.

Members of radical or extremist groups lack certain qualities, and this prompts them to seek alternative information about the world that surrounds them. They have developed lack of trust towards the media, society and public structures. After identifying their ambitions and fears, the opponent can provide them with the information they are looking for.

What are the goals of Russian propaganda?

One of the goals certainly is to improve Russia’s relationship with Poland. Another objective would be to undermine the image of Poland’s defensive structures, on many levels. This helps to promote the belief that we are vulnerable. This element of information influencing can be found in various texts and can be identified with relative ease. If we opened up the entire information distribution of the website that published fake interviews with Polish generals, we would reach the source that can be easily connected to Russia.

Do we know who is pulling the strings?

We must keep in mind that information influencing, similarly to hacker attacks, are of complex nature and it’s not always possible to pinpoint exact culprits. There are, however, some tropes and unique characteristics to the attacks and manipulative actions that, when analyzed, can point us, with high probability, towards the party responsible.

The opponent makes mistakes. Let’s scrutinize the dates of some publications qualified as Russian propaganda. Some articles referring to the issue were written before the main piece of information was even published. This means that the operator made a mistake and referred to an article or information that did not yet exist at that time. It needs an investigation on digital, journalistic and informational level.

We don’t assume that the Russian Federation cannot be defeated in information warfare. It certainly does fight this war on a global scale, but this aggression can be met with resistance.

Edyta Żemła

Polish journalist, since 2016 working for onet.pl. Former journalist at Rzeczpospolita daily and editor-in-chief of Polska Zbrojna, war correspondent in Afghanistan. Based in Warsaw.