Tallinn University of Technology

Author: Dr Adrian Venables, TalTech Centre for Digital Forensics and Cyber Security senior researcher


Bombarded by information

We live in an information age. Our waking hours are spent being bombarded with images, text and sound from multiple sources, all competing for our attention. Although much of this information may seek to educate, inform and entertain, some of it also seeks to influence our behaviour and decision making processes. This may be open, honest and accepted as part of everyday life and may even be useful with marketing being a prime example. Advertisements may try to persuade us to buy items that we didn’t even know existed with the promise of making our lives easier or more fulfilled. They may also help us to make purchasing decisions on products that we already intend to buy, but have not decided on which manufacturer, specification or price to pay. This industry is well established and is expert in providing sophisticated ways to convince us to part with our money in favour of one product over another. As the target of advertising campaigns, we are both familiar with the concept and are to a certain extent protected. The European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) is a self regulating body that helps to ensure that advertisements are legal, decent, honest and truthful with the purpose of creating trust in advertising and in brands. We are also pragmatic in accepting that although the advertisements project an image of the product contributing to a perfect life, it doesn’t necessarily represent reality. However, although we may appreciate that buying a certain product may not immediately make us rich, attractive, successful or fulfilled, how believable is the other information that we may see?

Propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and malinformation

History has many examples of how information has been used by nations to subdue or alter the behaviour of other countries. Being able to achieve dominance over an adversary without recourse to conflict is an attractive proposition and forms an integral part of a state’s foreign policy. Variously called ’Information Operations’, ’Information Warfare’ or ’Information Superiority’, they all recognise its use as a means to achieve a specific effect on an adversary. Although the origin of the phrase is unclear, it is often quoted that ’The first casualty of war is truth’. The degree by which the truth is manipulated can vary according to the type of information and its audience. The term ’propaganda’ is used to describe the systematic dissemination of information in a biased or misleading way in order to promote a political cause or point of view. If deliberately false, the term ’disinformation’ may be used and is often associated with governments with the aim of influencing the policies or opinions of those who receive it. Often confused with ‘disinformation’ is ‘misinformation’. This is information, which although incorrect or wrong is the result of an unintentional mistake and not deliberately intended to mislead. Sometimes information may not even be false to achieve harm. Mal-information is based on reality but may be private or personal information that when made public causes embarrassment. This is a favoured tactics of computer hackers and is called ‘Doxxing’. This involves accessing an individual’s private data from online sources and publishing them online causing distress and potentially placing them in danger.

Whether or not information is deliberately incorrect, what matters is how it is interpreted. This not only affects current events, but rewriting history to suit a particular narrative is also common. A recent example of this was the Russian government’s attempt to present the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in a positive light on the eightieth anniversary of its signing in August 2019. This revised explanation ignored the consequences of the collaboration between Hitler and Stalin until the former’s invasion of Russia in 1941 and its impact on the Baltic states and Poland. The pact is now portrayed as a natural result of the politics of the time and is promoted as ’a great achievement of Soviet diplomacy’. Fortunately, those countries that endured its consequences have been quick to criticise this view of history and counter Russia’s new description of the events of the time.

Information as a weapon

For over 70 years NATO has been the world’s most powerful military alliance and has successfully countered aggression in Europe and beyond. Its nations are also the most technologically advanced with nearly 90% of its population having access to an uncensored and free Internet. Unable to match the combined military strength of the western democracies, its adversaries have used information as a means to gain an advantage. It is in this respect that NATO is at a significant disadvantage as outside of the US and Europe, personal freedoms are more restricted, censorship is common, and the Internet is more tightly controlled. Exploiting the high levels of connectivity and an addiction to social media, western nationals have faced both cyber espionage and influence operations from a range of nation states. In this way, attackers have sought to reduce the western nation’s technological advantage by stealing intellectual property and to undermine their democratic institutions. The extent and sophistication of these operations reached public consciousness with the exposure of the Russian interference in the US Presidential elections in 2016 and Chinese spying activities in 2018.

When a nation directly interferes with the internal affairs of another, it is a breach of its sovereignty integrity under the UN charter. However, whereas activities in the physical domains would result in retaliation, cyberspace represents a grey area of law. This is due to disagreement over the issue of sovereignty in cyberspace and the difficulties in detecting and positively attributing actions within a reasonable timescale. It is for this reason that the information-based domain of cyberspace is an increasingly popular means for nations to conduct influence campaigns against their competitors and adversaries. Commonly known as ‘hybrid’ operations, these are variously defined as a mixture of coercive and subversive activities, conventional and unconventional methods, which can be used in a coordinated manner to achieve specific objectives while remaining below the threshold of formally declared warfare. Information is an ideal means to conduct a hybrid warfare campaign as when intelligently employed it can have a persuasive effect on a target audience equivalent to conventional weaponry. However, information cannot be regarded as a weapon in the same way as there is no direct destruction or physical injury. Its use can also be disguised by creating doubt as to its origin and by using users themselves to disseminate the information amongst a population; termed going ‘viral’. This is significant as information from those we know is more likely to be trusted and acted upon than from anonymous sources.

Countering information warfare

Although information is now widely used as a weapon, its effect can be reduced. We must learn to be more suspicious of what we read and not believe everything we see, particularly when it is online. Fact checking and using multiple sources for our information is important – and not just from social media. Reading reputable news sources known for journalistic integrity will also help to defeat the impact of fake news and disinformation. Engaging with those with a range of differing opinions will provide a wider perspective of issues and will help to balance extreme views. Discussing issues with colleagues and friends and regarding what you have seen as opinion, rather than fact will also help raise awareness and debate. Most of all though is an awareness of the issue. We are all targets for those that wish to influence our behaviour and attitudes and knowing this and preparing for it is our greatest defence.

This article was published in Edasi.org in February 2020.