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Social Media Warfare - Update
If you didn't get the memo: Social Media has been weaponized at scale
In 2022, social media weaponization should not be news to most people. Truth, trust, science, empathy, cooperation, and peaceful coexistence are under violent and organized attack and have been for years. It’s good to write about it once in a while to remind people - this is updated from a post I did in 2020 during the riots after George Floyd’s murder.
The Social Media Warfare Thesis
There were multiple indications that the outrage, violence, looting, burning, rioting of the protests against the murder of George Floyd were cynically inflamed, agitated, and incited by social media activity that fits the profile of psychological warfare (“Psyops” for short.) Outrage and anger are appropriate responses to police murder, but escalated and volatile emotions also make people vulnerable to deliberate and cynical manipulation. Once ignited, the fires of legitimate protest were intentionally fanned for a wider purpose that had nothing to do with George Floyd. The facts, what to do about the problem of law enforcement abuse, and the murder itself were irrelevant to this wider purpose.
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2020 wasn’t the first incident - this has been a major problem since social media attained critical mass and state-actor interest. Scientific and intelligence evidence shows that Brexit, #MeToo, Covid, masking vs. “liberty” conflict, anti-vaccination fanaticism, Fauci hatred, Trumpism, Jan 6th, all manifest psychological warfare tactics by organized entities. And now we’re in the midst of an escalation of abortion wars. Nothing has changed or improved.
Justice, truth, problem-solving, collaboration, policy definition – these are meaningless to the perpetrators of psychological warfare. The conflict itself is the end goal, with the sole purpose of amplifying the fracturing of culture and society, dividing and weakening populations.
Now in 2022 with the overturn of Roe and further court extremism on the way, the stakes continue to be life-or-death, freedom-or-prison. Midterm elections are coming, and then a presidential election. Foundations of representative government are being deliberately targets and bombared on a social media battlefield.
It’s a good time for a reminder, and for new readers of my blog to see, what social media warfare is about, how it’s fought and how to defend and fight back against it.
Objective observations validate the concern over large scale psyops:
- Psychological warfare has been a technique of controlling the opinions and actions of adversaries ever since warfare was invented
- Cyberattacks against networks and individuals' computer technology have been a fact of life for a generation. I personally have seen attack monitors of one company's network showing several hundred thousand attacks per day.
- Social media is no less a target than network infrastructure and computer technologies. No serious adversary will ignore the soft targets of people's emotions, attitudes, and beliefs. Hundreds of billions of dollars in commercial advertising and millennia of human conflict clearly show how to control peoples’ behavior.
- Social media companies have no technology capable of effectively preventing well-funded adversaries from running psyops on their platforms. Civil institutions have no policy or enforcement mechanisms to combat information abuse.
- Scientific psychological, sociological, computer-science, law enforcement, and machine learning analyses have proven that psyops features are present and very active in social media. The evidence is published, performed by scientists, and available to all to review and critique.
Psychological warfare is being waged against you, with every log in to social media.
And it is not “benign” like trying to influence the type of automobile or toilet paper you buy. Modern civil society, economic balance, political processes, and humanist values are under relentless daily attack on social media.
It’s important to realize that victory against a psyops opponent is not about overtly "fighting back." Counteraction must be covert, amorphous, and hidden in plain sight, just as the offensive war is fought. Counter psyops is covert and guerilla.
Open conflict is a formula for failure in the highly asymmetric battlefield of social media so responding to trolling posts with anger, or debate, or snarky memes and insults accomplishes nothing. It’s tempting and almost enjoyable so go ahead - but there are more useful and important things to do. If you can stand being on social media in the first place.
In this quick blog there isn't space to elaborate on the myriad tactics and strategies used to mount and operate psyops. However, it's important to be aware of some of the basics.
Here are indications that a post is likely a result of a psyops campaign:
It lacks any direct evidence, relying on hearsay and vague attributions like "some say..."
It creates doubt and uncertainty about a scientific or cultural position (climate, health, etc.) while not referencing any substantive or cogent counterargument.
It polarizes the discussion and oversimplifies complex issues reducing them to: us/them, democrat/republican, white/black, liberal/conservative, crips/bloods. It is strictly tribal without articulating true differences supported by evidence.
It is obviously partisan tribal politics, fitting the above profiles.
It is expressed in terms that are bullying, insulting, hostile, demeaning, and with no "socially redeeming value." There's a predisposition to these traits being more common on social media in general anyway, but psyops leverage this and amplify it
It is one of an endless series of retweets or re-posts of someone else's meme, creating a value-free echo chamber.
The repetition and echo-chambering is at large scale
People were not always so polarized, and there is much handwringing about why so much bad behavior is occuring and “why are we so polarized?" The simple answer is it’s being orchestrated and encouraged, and the list above characterizes the signature of this sponsored conflict.
Psychological Warfare Countermeasures
Each of us has the same tools at our individual disposal that any social media psyops combatant has - words and some computers. The difference is one of numbers, and knowledge of techniques.
China organized an entire army to fight in the social media war space: The 50-Cent Army, or the 50-Cent Party. They were responsible for hundreds of millions of social media posts annually, paid 50 cents for each one, all part of organized campaigns to control perception and behavior. This is what we’re up against, but the same techniques they used are available to any social media user.
It’s been shown that if 25% of a given population can adopt a behavioral pattern and convention, a tipping point can be reached and the behavior spreads at large scale. If only psyops defense techniques could take hold and grow to that scale...
So we do what we can, and here are some possibilities. People have reported on techniques and guidelines that can be used in online propaganda counteroffensives, and this not secret sauce. Your mileage may vary, and as always you have to be cognizant of potential risks.
Follow some adversarial accounts so you have exposure to the feeds of possible participants in, or victims of, the warfare operation. Look for account with posts that fit the psyops characteristics. They won’t be hard to find.
Ignore ideology. Remember the adversary is not necessarily going to be on "your" or "their" side of the issues. They will be present on both sides of any argument, making posts that fit a psyops profile, with the intent to inflame emotion in any direction.
Follow hashtags that are volatile and related to the issues of the moment that are likely being manipulated. #BLM #MAGA #MeToo, etc. #Qanon is a prolific source of inflammatory propaganda.
Then, as a countermeasure, some people will repost and retweet psyops posts together with added content that A) Dilutes, B) Distracts, C) Obscures, or D) deflects the intention. They include the original contents, links, and hashtags, then add new hashtags, and additional users, then manipulate the post.
Dilute: Some people write nonsense, nursery rhymes. Recipes for chuck roast. Random wikipedia content. Add links to irrelevant websites (using an URL-shortener like tinyurl.com) and if the website is especially slow, filled with ads and trackers, so much the better. Hashtag dilution is accomplished by adding unrelated hashtags.
Distract: If the poster is a fanatic Fox News fan, someone might post a link to an unrelated and benign news story on Fox, such as a profile/bio of a commentator, or an unrelated event of interest. New sources have fluff pieces about celebrities and sports - anything to derail the attention of the info-victim, who will be momentarily interested in the newest Kylie Jenner replacement or NFL replays.
Obscure: I've also seen turning posts into gibberish or adding noise to make the original message meaningless. Make it seem like the original message is ridiculous. There are online tools that can process a post's text through a "gibberishator" such as this Word Salad generator which took a quote from a Trump speech about building The Wall and turned it into nonsense. Sometimes, though, the result will trigger a block or ban from the platform because a bad word sneaks in so edit as needed:
"AID BILE BOILED ANT WHEAT WARE--AD ANYBODY BILLS WARMS BEEFER WEAN AWE, BELIEF AM--ASP I'll BUILT ANTHEM BERT INEXPENSIVELY. WIN WILLIS BUD AT WREATH, AREA AL BAN AMOUR SOUTHERN BURDEN, BANS AIR YELL BABE MEXICO BAY WON BAT WILLS. YARN AD WORTH
Deflect: This is a technique where the message to a post or topic derails the attacker's message. A message of racism directed towards Black Americans could be responded to with a link to a story about the Dalai Lama's message of peace. A post about the "heroism" of armed protesters could be repeated with comments of bible quotes. The attention of the info-target is redirected to a different message that neutralizes the emotion they are amplifying.
Interfere: Someone can always just create posts at random when bored, that similarly obscure and deflect, repeating profile names and hashtags that are being manipulated. Large-scale misappropriation of "trending" hashtags is a technique used in psyops, and that technique of course goes both ways. Adversaries' social media space has been overrun with smoke and confusion, and if sufficiently overused, the trending hashtags of the adversary are sapped of potency.
Just remember do not engage with the enemy.
Call to Action
The George Floyd, Qanon, Jan 6th, abortion, Covid – these have all been opportunities leveraged by psyops. Outrage and polarization are being leveraged, exploited, and used as a pretext for adversarial actions.
There is no effective resistance to social media warfare except to employ techniques tailored to counteracting psyops.
We have to start somewhere.
Learn and grow.
Per hoc numero erit vicit
(Amazon links not provided – go buy these somewhere else)
FM 3-13.4 Army Support to Military Deception; US Army Field Manual Feb 2019
Social Media Warfare; Michael Erbschloer, CRC Press 2017
Deception in the Digital Age; Malin, et. al, Academic Press 2017
Obfuscation – A Users’ Guide; Brunton, MIT Press 2016
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