As investigations into attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election continue, more aspects of Russia’s approach to information warfare are coming to light. A steady stream of new disclosures is revealing a complex blend of hacking, public disclosures of private emails, and use of bots, trolls, and targeted advertising on social media designed to interfere in political processes and heighten societal tensions.
An important part of the Islamic State’s meteoric rise to power in Syria and Iraq was due at least in part to its creative use of social media tools to distribute propaganda and recruit new members. The group’s well-documented social media skills have attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters to join the fight. As documented by the CTC weeks before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established the caliphate in Mosul, the Islamic State propaganda machine also served a critical role in psychological operations during the group’s blitzkrieg advance into northwestern Iraq in June of 2014.
It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the group has issued an official ban on social media for all of its soldiers. In a document (see below) produced by the Islamic State’s Delegated Committee a few weeks ago and disseminated via Islamic State distribution channels more recently, the group’s order to all of its soldiers stated: “effective from the date of this notification, using social networking sites is entirely and completely forbidden. Whoever violates this exposes himself to questioning and accountability.” The order was published by the group in both Arabic and English.
A video that Moscow used as key piece of evidence that its ally President Bashar al-Assad had nothing to do with the chemical attack in Idlib which killed more than 80 people, including many children and women one month ago, was in fact released two years ago and first cited a month before the attack actually took place.
The video was pushed out across Russian state-controlled airwaves and on social media shortly after President Donald J. Trump launched the first direct U.S. military strike on Syrian government forces.
It showed what looks like a makeshift emergency room: doctors working frantically around the small bodies of limp, half-naked children, their eyes rolling back and noses foaming. A girl in pink underwear lies on top of an elderly woman who seems to have already died. One bed over, a doctor injects a long needle deep into a small child’s chest.
This article was originally published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on 9 February 2017.
States all around the world are seeking to restrict the proliferation of ‘fake news’ to insulate their populations against messages that may destabilise their societies. But is the state the best entity to combat fake news?
IN 2016, several populist politicians around the world gained power by drawing on the emotion and biases of their supporters. Many of these followers appear to have been swayed by fake news, not verifying the ‘facts’ that their leaders provide them. More worrying, the leaders themselves seem not to care about the veracity of what they are spreading. Fake news can present as websites that deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation purporting to be real news, and often using social media to drive web traffic and amplify their effect.
Some commentators fear that this is leading to a new normal where extremely biased views become the mainstream, thanks to fake news. These extreme views can cause divisions in society, foment unrest, and in some cases, lay the foundations for violence, such as the fake news that a pizza restaurant was operating a child abuse ring.
The role of propaganda and censorship is not as obvious as it may seem. From the infamous propaganda arm of North Korean government to the state-run media organizations in China and Russia, it is clear that the mechanisms and effectiveness of propaganda and censorship vary widely. During the height of propaganda in the twentieth century, authoritarian governments were able to craft strong, singular national narratives by propagating political messages in popular media while censoring those that conflicted with the government’s line of thought. With the advent of the digital age, Russia and China have been forced to develop their propaganda strategy to combat the newfound power of the average internet user, who can seek and share information at the instant click of a mouse. While the basics of propagandistic strategy have persisted, fundamental changes have occurred as a response to the paradigm shift in information sharing and seeking.