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2019 Issue 3

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A threat just a click away

A threat just a click away

[photo of a tweet from a Russian organization, with the article title: A threat just a click away]

Crooked Hillary has ANOTHER coughing fit while bashing President Trump at #Wellesley2017. Choking on her lies?

This was just one of the tweets posted by the Twitter account @TEN-GOP in 2017. For months, the pro-Trump account sent out tweets promoting anti-Democrat conspiracy theories, endorsements of Donald Trump’s policies, and racist and Islamaphobic content. Apparently run by Tennessee Republicans, the account gained more than 130,000 followers. It was retweeted by those in Trump’s inner circle, including Donald Trump Jr. The account was shut down in August 2017 after it was learned that the account was managed, not by a proud Republican in Nashville or Chattanooga, but by an organization supported by the Russian government.

Russia’s recent actions, including during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, should serve as a warning bell to Western states regarding the growing threat posed by information warfare and psychological operations conducted through social media. Through the use of its television network, social media, automated bots, and “troll factories,” Russia has been accused of using information warfare to influence public opinion within the United States. Russia’s actions are examples of psychological operations, an element of information warfare that aims to alter the behaviours and attitudes of foreign populations. Through the internet, information is spread with the intention of sowing doubt and confusion. This strategy serves as a powerful tool for states and non-state actors, and is one Western states struggle to counter.

Sunil Narula wrote, “Psychological operations may be broadly defined as the planned use of communications to influence human attitudes and behaviour, to create in target groups, behaviour, emotions, and attitudes that support the attainment of national objectives. This form of communication can be as simple as spreading information covertly by word of mouth or through any means of mass media.”;1The use of psychological operations to influence attitudes and behaviour is not new. The practice has long been used to intimidate and to misinform targets. Genghis Khan sent agents in advance of the arrival of his men to stoke rumours regarding the size of his army. In 1984, Russia was found to be behind an article in an Indian newspaper that claimed the AIDS virus first emerged as the result of an American genetic-engineering experiment. During the 2003 Iraq War, coalition forces dropped millions of information leaflets over Iraq, continuing a practice of mass propaganda distribution used since the First World War.

[copy of a 2003 pamphlet dropped over Iraq by coalition aircraft. Messaging appeals to Iraqi citizens to withhold aid from Saddam's officials.]
A sample of leaflets dropped over Iraq by coalition aircraft in 2013.PJF Military Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

But the old practice has gained profound strength with the emergence of the internet. Information can now reach unprecedented numbers of people with incredible speed for very little cost. Psychological operations can also be specifically targeted to certain audiences for maximum effect. As individuals go about their daily lives on the internet, large amounts of their personal data are collected. This data can be used to group individuals based on their political beliefs or religion, targeting them with specific content. It is now known that Russia purchased Facebook ads to target specific interests during the 2016 election.

Most conflicts today involve an online element, in which social media networks are used to manipulate public opinion. Some political analysts say that information warfare no longer exists solely as a force multiplier to conventional warfare. It can actually replace conventional warfare in some instances. In the latest generation of warfare, information is the central strategy. For states like Russia, this strategy helps them to achieve their objectives while circumventing the superior military capabilities of their rivals. This strategy also requires little sophistication. It is not about the quality of the information spread, but rather, the quantity. Much of the information spread by Russia during the 2016 campaign was far less convincing than narratives the U.S.S.R. disseminated during the Cold War. For example, a message spread by Russian-linked social media accounts proclaiming voters could “avoid the line” and legally vote by tweeting their preference with #PresidentialElection was widely ridiculed as being ridiculous. Yet with psychological operations, an actor does not need to craft a convincing narrative, they merely need to sow doubt. During the 2016 election, Russia’s goal was to sow doubt in American democratic institutions. As journalist Peter Pomerantsev wrote in The Atlantic

The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted – to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counter-narrative. It is the perfect genre for conspiracy theories, which are all over Russian TV. When the Kremlin and its affiliated media outlets spat out outlandish stories about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July [2014] – reports that characterized the crash as everything from an assault by Ukrainian fighter jets following U.S. instructions to an attempted NATO attack on Putin’s private jet – they were trying not so much to convince viewers of any one version of events, but rather to leave them confused, paranoid, and passive – living in a Kremlin-controlled virtual reality that can no longer be mediated or debated by any appeal to ‘truth.’2

One positive outcome of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election may be a greater awareness of the threat of information warfare. Yet responding to these psychological operations poses a predicament for Western powers. Merely keeping up with the volume of information spread is nearly impossible. Western governments do not have the resources to respond to every piece of information that emerges, with the challenge often compared to a game of whack-a-mole. The commitment to truth prevalent in liberal democracies also makes crafting a compelling counter-narrative difficult. Offering a truthful counter-narrative to compete against sensational information, such as the existence of a child sex-trafficking ring operating out of a D.C. pizza parlour, often proves impossible. Professional standards in Western media to report both sides of a story causes further difficulty, as media outlets often end up repeating information spread by psychological operations in their coverage.

Psychological operations conducted through the internet pose a great threat to Western democracies. If Western states do not direct greater attention to the use of information warfare online, a threat to liberal democracies may just be one click away.


Kayla Maria Rolland is a recent Political Studies graduate. A version of this article was originally written for the course POLS 465,The Politics of War, with Dr. H. Christian Breede, CD. Ms. Rolland’s essay was featured earlier this year in “The Contact Report,” an online series hosted by the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s. Learn more:queensu.ca/cidp/contact-report.


1Republished with permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd. from “Psychological operations (PSYOPS): A conceptual overview” by Sunil Naruna,Strategic Analysis,vol. 28, issue 1, 2004. Permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.

2Republished with permission of The Atlantic from “Russia and the Menace of Unreality: How Vladimir Putin is revolutionizing information warfare” by Peter Pomerantsev,The Atlantic, September 2014. Permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.

[illustration of Queen's students in 1918 wearing army uniforms and Queen's students in 1968 at a peace rally