Liberal democracies particularly vulnerable to information warfare


The joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise ‘Zapad 2017’ is a form of information warfare, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė told the United Nations General Assembly in New York. “The Kremlin is rehearsing aggressive scenarios against its neighbors, training its army to attack the West,” she said. “The exercise is also part of information warfare aimed at spreading uncertainty and fear.”

Autocratic regimes are increasingly turning to asymmetric methods for engaging in conflict, notes a leading analyst. Cyber-enabled information warfare (CEIW) is a form of conflict to which liberal democracies are particularly vulnerable, says Herbert Lin (right), a senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at Stanford University.

Information warfare involves the deliberate use of information to confuse, mislead, and affect the choices and decisions that the adversary makes, he writes for the Cipher Brief:

Cyber-enabled information warfare (CEIW) takes advantage of the features of information technologies and the internet: high connectivity, low latency, high degrees of anonymity, insensitivity to distance and national borders, democratized access to publishing capabilities, and inexpensive production and consumption of information content.

These aspects of modern information technologies enable foreign practitioners of information warfare to use automated Twitter accounts to amplify one-sided messages, to communicate with large populations at low cost without accountability, and at the same time to tailor political messages in a manner highly customized to narrow audiences. And because democracies place a greater emphasis on free expression and speech than do their authoritarian adversaries, democracies have fewer and more porous defenses against CEIW.

“Even if the democratic nations of the world are able to pursue some kind of information warfare campaign against non-democracies, such a campaign will not cause those nations to cease and desist their own information operations,” Lin adds. “A logical if frightening extrapolation of current trends would suggest a future in which rage, fantasy, and bullshit replace reason and reality as the currencies of political discourse.”

But fears of Russian information warfare are “both simplistic and misguided,” according to Bloomberg analyst Leonid Bershidsky:

Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, whose name repeatedly comes up in connection with Russia’s embrace of non-military warfare, asserted in a 2013 speech that Russia needed to pay close attention to the way the U.S. combines military action with information campaigns, diplomacy and economic sanctions. Roger McDermott, an expert on Russian military and security issues, debunked talk of a “Gerasimov doctrine” in a comprehensive paper last year. “Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the current chasm that divides Russia and NATO is the mythical interpretation that Moscow has devised a lethal and new hybrid warfare doctrine,” he wrote.

Non-state actors, including terrorist groups, are also engaged in information warfare, notes Colin P. Clarke, a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism. Long before ISIS began significantly investing in propaganda, the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah had laid the groundwork for the effective use of information warfare, which is the ability to gain an advantage over an adversary through the management of information, he writes for The Jerusalem Post.

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