Internet at and for war

Espionage, disinformation, monitoring military actions from inside and collecting intelligence still carries fiction-like aura from the Cold War era, with the public is naively hoping to stay in the past or, at least, Hollywood. However, as more governments around the world are waking up to realise, the art of espionage has never been forgotten. It has become much more sophisticated, technological and more bounded to intelligence services – with the help of the Internet and transformation of psychological warfare.

Why Internet, and Why Now?

After the Web became available to every household, a certain type of culture was being created, a different one, boundless and wild, where everybody got to be creative, important, voice their thoughts with complete anonymity. This thriving global confluence of people slowly created an ecosystem for exchanging ideas and humour, as well as opened a new market for businesses and governments worldwide. Like an atomic blast, Social Media came breaking and building the new norms of connectivity, where everyone was welcome and able to express themselves in numerous ways. Social Media and hashtag movements are now speculated to have influenced revolutions, protests and policy changes. People regained their freedom on multiple levels, challenging or defaming anyone online without real-life consequences, or so they thought.

Governments were quick to take their part in the online world, undermining security systems and user privacy, failing to adapt to new ways of communication, but exploiting the possibilities for intelligence. It is especially visible in clashes over Cambridge Analytica case, as well as legislators wish to restrict internet users and control the freedom of the internet. However, there were some, raiding the Web, adapting already proven means of psychological warfare and propaganda – Russia, Israel, China, US, among others, Mohicans of information and psychological operations. The internet made control of information and public opinion as a part of broader military strategy possible and geographically or socially boundless.

Hackers and Trolls for Intelligence

Psychological operations, as well as intelligence operations, bring a certain refined aura around them, with secrecy and black suits. This image was embraced by the Anonymous, fighting or mocking the establishment of governments and churches. However, states were actively employing hacking into their influence operations long before the Guy Fowkes masks became an international token for resistance. 

With great effort, hacking became a necessity for military operations and warfare. Hacking into the most important state establishments to trespass, monitor or break the systems became the new norm of espionage, without the risk of human fault on the ground. A worm accompanied by spyware in a foreign country’s systems turned out to be a common practice and effortless tool for information collecting, until somebody finds out, diplomatically apologises, and sends their own advanced version back. The same rules as in old-school espionage applied – everybody is doing it, but it is acceptable only until one gets caught. 

On the other hand, disinformation as a tool and a weapon is to be spread as widely as possible, influencing people across different parts of society, fueling false accusations as well as minor deviances from the truth. Most extreme cases of disinformation are spread by the Russian government, about any country or any persona, taking a stance against Kremlin employed rhetoric within the last 5-10 years. The latest military actions in Ukraine were followed by massive disinformation operation on Russian and international media spreading the pseudo-historical philosophy of Ukraine occupying Southern parts of Russia. More interestingly, the Russian government was one of the first ones worldwide to excessively employ personnel to troll internet users – from interrupting sensitive topics, as child abuse in Lithuania, to spreading the news on Russia giving a refund to the US for Alaska. Disinformation and extensive cyber attacks were usually accompanied by military action on the ground if it is not a NATO member at the other end of optics – occupation of Crimea, Russo-Georgian war. Baltic states and Scandinavian neighbours are experiencing these attacks on a different scale, usually by spreading information targetted to or against minorities, false historical accusations or straightforward dismissal of the international importance of these governments, which is not considered to be a provocative action or act of warfare under any international law. As independent as the West are, the democratic giants failed to evaluate the actual impact on their people of Russian sponsered messages – as Timothy Snyder explains, Scotland escaped the trap, but Britain neglected the interference for too long, and now is dealing with Brexit. 

Warfare in the time of peace

Hacking, disinformation and trolling have a more complex significance than only exploiting the digital realm of lawlessness. These tools are the core strategic pillars for a different warfare in a society, prevailed by peace and liberty. The ultimate success of digital psychological warfare can be reached by measures, that are not considered as warfare under international law. Disinformation and trolling are used to demoralise the society of a certain country, or a certain target audience, to fuel distrust, hatred and distancing between the people within. Even more, hacking and ease of cybersecurity breaches, especially minor cases of cyber-hooliganism, emphasize an image of a government incapable of protecting their online data, or emails from spam. 

Therefore, has the internet ever been not exploited for manipulation or war? If not for military use, the users would still wage hashtag battles and flame wars on topics that would never raise a heated debate offline. Use of this environment for the purposes of broader warfare requires thorough planning on what might infuriate people on Social Media. As frightening as it is, it does not require a lot to get people angry, therefore media literacy and awareness of the ultimate troll system is necessary. It is more disturbing to see the troll-fuelled protests develop into disruptions and conflicts within the society, which are a treat to unfriendly foreign powers. Countries are already fighting the trolls, but more sophisticated psychological strategies online are yet to come. The issue of cybersecurity lagging behind the offensive developments remains.

Cartoon credits @ Baloo- Rex May

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