Weaponization of information and digital warfare

The increasing use of online platforms for disinformation campaigns by governments, corporations and other interest groups, carried out by individuals or bots using algorithms, has created the threat of what has been termed as‘computational propaganda’ (Woolley and Howard, 2018).As elsewhere,such weaponization of information is in evidence within BRICS democracies, for example, WhatsApp being ‘weaponised as social media’ during the election of far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018 (Evangelista and Bruno, 2019) or antiMuslim hate in Indian cyberspace (Mirchandani, 2018).

Russia and China are singled out by Western governments as indulging in the ‘weaponization’ of information. It could, however, be argued that the use of information as a weapon is as old as communication itself and in modern times the US has excelled in this arena. Countries such as Russia and China are concerned about the close relationship between the US government and Internet corporations based in that country. Putin went so far as to label the Internet as ‘a CIA project’ (Economist, 2019). Countries with closed information systems are also concerned that the US could use its Internet dominance to foster regime change (Klimburg, 2017). They have good reason to believe this: George W. Bush’s 2003 National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace and the Obama administration’s 2009 Cyberspace Policy Review established a US Cyber Command to integrate US cyber operations, including offensive military cyber operations abroad (US Government, 2003 and 2009).

This has grown more strident under the Trump administration, as the National Cyber Strategy, issued in 2018 by the Department of Defense, speaks of‘defend forward’ by thwarting cyber threats ‘before they reach their targets’ and disrupting ‘malicious cyber activity at its source’. Among its goals are punishing what it called ‘malicious actors’, such as Russia and China, countries (along with Iran and North Korea) that use ‘cyber tools to undermine our economy and democracy, steal our intellectual property, and sow discord in our democratic processes’ (US Government, 2018: 2-3). Such policy discourses are also reflected in academic literature emanating from the US (for example, Carlin and Graff, 2018).

Kremlin dezinformatsiya

In Western discourses on information warfare, Russia gets even more attention than China. Reports about Russia’s ‘Internet Research Agency’ sometimes labelled as a ‘troll farm’, promoting pro-Kremlin propaganda online, have captured global attention (Chen, 2015).The alleged Russian cyber-attack on Ukraine in 2015 was one early example of Russian online aggression against an adversary (Greenberg,

2019). The most controversial case of the weaponization of cyber information, including social media, is the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections (Singer and Brooking, 2018; Hall Jamieson, 2018). However, a US study of the US-based twitter accounts of American citizens found scant evidence on the effect of disinformation targeted at Western public opinion except that it mostly caters to right-wing audiences (Hjorth and Adler-Nissen, 2019).

With its motto of ‘question more’ the Russian international news network RT (formerly Russia Today), which claims to be the most watched 24/7 news channel on YouTube, is considered by many as a major vehicle for disinformation. Its output has been creating ripples in Western media and policy circles, an indication of what has elsewhere been called the ‘RT effect’, particularly visible within the US and Western Europe (Thussu, 2019: 216). An 8,700-word investigation in the New York Times framed the global operations of RT and other Russian overseas media as part of‘hybrid’ warfare undertaken against the West and its liberal world order (Rutenberg, 2017). A study of RT’s YouTube programming found that the channel’s targeting of strategic groups outside the West, including Arabic-speakers, was less successful than among English and Spanish audiences (Orttung and Nelson, 2019).

A European Parliament panel report was explicit about what it called ‘Russian influence campaigns’, suggesting that they ‘have disseminated disinformation, undermined the public discourse with bots, inflated controversial viewpoints at the fringes of the political spectrum, and hacked political actors across the globe’ (European Parliament, 2019: 26). The European Union has set up a portal -EUvsDisinfo - to collate and to analyse disinformation cases. In the US, the think tank, Atlantic Council runs a ‘Digital Forensic Research Lab’ to monitor and manage disinformation, with support from civil society groups especially the techsavvy ‘digital Sherlocks’, as its 2019 report calls them,‘skilled at identifying disinformation’ and ‘skilled at identifying coordinated disinformation activity driven by inauthentic accounts, often in real time’ (Polyakova and Fried, 2019: 3).

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