If civilians are engaged in conflict, then the solution can only come in a ‘whole-of-society’ approach, and not from government only.
Increasingly, as global competition steps up and technology affords ever more efficient ways of compelling the enemy into submission without firing a shot, we will continue to see information warfare being used more often and by a wider range of state and non-state actors. Since the very essence of such campaigns is to remain below the threshold of conflict – where their perpetrators may be identified and proportional response may be triggered – there will be no non-combatants. What is more, the civilian population will be the target of choice, because the modus operandi of ‘influence’, perhaps a more adequate name than ‘war’, campaigns is to turn the native populations, or part thereof, into unknowing accomplices/ domestic agents of the attacker, most often by inciting them to contest the very institutions tasked with preserving stability, continuity and legitimacy of the state.
If civilians are engaged in conflict, then the solution can only come in a ‘whole-of-society’ approach, and not from government only. Quite on the contrary, the role of government is often a delicate one, since malign foreign influence seeks to deepen the mistrust that citizens already have in their own governments and in the very ability of the institutions of representative democracy to deliver on their mission. The most fragile balance to maintain, under the circumstances, is between countering information manipulation, and preserving information integrity and the freedom of expression.
The simple truth is that technology and communication have progressed at a rate unmatched by either human emotional and cognitive development, or adaptation of institutions. We remain unable to cope with information overload and speed, microtargeting and the pushing of all our emotional triggers without enormous effort.
To be clear, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, as dis-/misinformation and manipulation are versatile weapons and they adapt to the target, and no definitive comprehensive answer yet. The simple truth is that technology and communication have progressed at a rate unmatched by either human emotional and cognitive development, or adaptation of institutions. We remain unable to cope with information overload and speed, microtargeting and the pushing of all our emotional triggers without enormous effort. This is why advocating that responsibility for facing this onslaught of emotionally – and bias- loaded information lies ultimately with the individual only to decide what is best for oneself hugely underestimates the toll that the information environment that we live in takes on our ability to cope. Similarly, institutions and democracy itself have not evolved to effectively deal with the challenge, while preserving fundamental principles: they remain slow, often hierarchical and bureaucratic, in a world that is increasingly horizontal, ad-hoc, and empowering for a whole new range of citizens.
That being said, there are a number of things to do – and fast – to limit the impact of information operations, while safeguarding democracy and civil liberties. They are grouped along an axis that goes from ‘detection’, to ‘damage limitation’ and ‘deterrence’ and involve two lines of action: Resilience and Response. The goal is both to equip societies to deal with the threat when it presents itself, and to take preventive measures to avoid it materialising at all, given that once falsified information has made it into the public space, damage has already been done. Hence, one of the main challenges is to get ahead of the game and pre-emptively reduce exposure to manipulation, rather than simply be reactive.
The difficulty of ‘detection’ derives from the competitive edge of information operations: they are often detected only after they have produced effects. Attribution, the determination of what constitutes the threshold for calling ‘an attack’ and what constitutes proportional response are equally challenging. All these decisions will of necessity be highly political, not just a military or technical matter. Yet, for effective ‘deterrence’ to work, one needs to increase the costs of carrying out information operations for the adversary; and for ‘response’ mechanisms to be activated, the ‘enemy’ needs to be clearly identified in national strategic documents, especially in cases where subversive behaviour is employed repeatedly and/ or with a manifest purpose.
Both detection and damage limitation (through building resilience) can improve if an ‘early warning’ system is put in place, by means of a self-assessment of permeability to information manipulation. Since foreign actors will use existing rifts, grievances and perception biases and aim to amplify them, the identification of such vulnerabilities will make it easier to plug the gaps before others can take advantage of them. That is not to say they will always be easy to address, since many are structural and closely linked with the overall resilience of state and/ or democracy: Critical thinking, scientific education and media literacy among the population, confidence in government, perceived inequality, corruption, intra-societal trust, etc. Also, singular measures are unlikely to significantly reduce the risk. Media literacy education is always good, but it’s a long-term endeavour and it is insufficient; debunking alone, rather than setting the facts straight, is likely to reinforce false narratives by repeating them, as well as to induce the belief that no one can be trusted – which plays right into the hands of manipulators.
To boost resilience, governments and societies need to focus primarily on those segments of the population who are not hardcore believers of fabricated ideas or ideology, but represent the ‘swing’ segment, who can be turned relatively easily by a malevolent actor, but can also be protected from manipulation with the right and timely actions.
To boost resilience, governments and societies also need to focus primarily on those segments of the population who are not hardcore believers of fabricated ideas or ideology, but represent the ‘swing’ segment, who can be turned relatively easily by a malevolent actor, but can also be protected from manipulation with the right and timely actions. To this end, the government needs to develop a robust strategic communications strategy (StratCom) and infrastructure, to make sure it has the upper hand on relevant communication and it is not only in a position to refute falsehood, but also persuade the public, in a manner that is both truthful, efficient and respectful of existing biases, without appearing to challenge the core beliefs and values of its constituency. Both StratCom and anti-disinformation measures need to be well-coordinated across relevant agencies, with a clear focal point, placed with an authority that has the constitutional and executive ability to direct other institutions. Too often, at present, government works in silos and information or intelligence-sharing is deficient.
More widely, cooperation among official institutions, the private sector, especially social media and online platforms, and civil society is key. On the one hand, the public will be better protected if these platforms help identify automated inauthentic behaviour online (trolls, bots) and through real-time fact-checking and flagging, limit the access of perpetrators to their audience, as well as their financial incentives. On the other hand, the capacity of platforms and of those using them to microtarget individuals and use emotional response triggers needs to be limited, while the transparency of algorithms and policies needs to be greatly improved. This is also the case with the ease of access and understanding of the user concerning any dangers he/she faces in operating the respective platforms, to empower the individual in relation to these companies. In so doing, the role of independent watchdogs is crucial, because these are, after all, private entities working for profit, while governments themselves can be seen as having a stake in the regulation and non-/disclosure of information. The principle that offline rules should naturally extend online is gaining widespread approval, but only international standards (such as the EU Code of Conduct, Five Eyes and other collective arrangements) will realistically make a difference in addressing a problem that is inherently a cross-border one and can easily elude a single state’s jurisdiction.
This article was first published as part of the series — Raisina Edit 2021.