For me, one of the most interesting developments in the 21st century so far has been the adaptation of old school active measures to new technologies. If you’ve been awake the past few years you’re probably familiar with it. Short version, the Russian government has taken the internet, psychological operations, and its existing services to build an effective society-cleaving scythe.
Psychological operations and active measures are nothing new. I won’t go into the long history, suffice it to say every nation has engaged in them to some extent over the course of history. It’s cheaper then firing missiles and plausible deniability does go a long way. Today, it’s even cheaper to launch a multi-pronged operation on multiple fronts as the attack surface has expanded exponentially with the emergence of social media. Some, myself included, might even say the use of such weapons against democracies could be a veiled effort to move more open societies to push for internet sovereignty by using the very tool which they believe threatens them – freedom of speech.
If we are to go down that road – mandating all online interactions have some human attribution for identity and location – well there’s a saying about hunting monsters.
Still, that seems to be the path we are on now here in the U.S. Long the champion of an unbounded internet, we now have to contend with what that means – that anyone with the technical know how can launch disinformation and misinformation campaigns with very real ground results – against the entire population with relative ease.
Yes, real ground results – in case you hadn’t heard, false personas and groups literally created the environment for rallies and protests on both sides of the same issue. Divide and conquer?
So what is a democracy (or democratic leaning) nation to do? Close up the borders? Require everyone exercising their free speech to provide proof of identity – regardless of the type of speech? Do we abandon privacy in the name of security, or does free speech – regardless of type – mandate publicity? Do we monitor everyone? If so, will we use that information?
In World War II, my grandfather was a tail-gunner on a B-17 who was shot down over Nazi occupied France. I don’t know what if any relationship that has to the following, but I present it for context of the man. When I was a kid he told me, “believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” Sometimes I think he set me up to be something of a cynic, he certainly set me up to think critically for myself.
So an alternative to becoming the monsters we seek to defeat, encourage critical thinking. Checking sources is fine, but that too has its limits as the technology to impersonate anyone has now reached terrifying levels. Everyone would like you to make you decision in 30 seconds or less, that’s the way everything is served here in the West, but it’s your life – you don’t have to be rushed. Stop, take a breath and be mindful of whatever it is going on between those ears. Who is thinking? Is it you? What assumptions are you making? Do you care about your biases? Why do you believe what you believe in?
Believing in half of what you see and none of what you hear is the best guidance anyone could give in the face of information operations. I don’t know if that was what my grandfather was getting at, maybe he just didn’t want me to be duped by car salesmen – but how different is that?
Image of the B-17 #42-3538 / Ten Knights in a Bar Room, taken shortly before it was shot down on October 4th, 1943.