War of Words: Cyber-enabled Information Operations

Discussions of cybersecurity and other cyber-related operations are understandably on the rise. Cyber-attacks, including those using new and increasingly dangerous malware like Mirai, threaten the stability of the internet, and our financial and logistical stability with it.  And with the ongoing investigations in the House and Senate into Russian influence of the 2016 US Presidential election, it is no wonder why Information Operations is a hot topic in Washington and elsewhere.

The enormity of the alleged Russian misinformation campaign directed at the United States and, more recently, European allies shocked many. Clearly, the US Intelligence Community was ill-prepared to counter the strategy. We are learning that the campaign was detected but both law enforcement and intelligence agencies could do little about it. Now, as the full scope of the effort comes into focus, public and private institutions are helping to create a more thorough understanding of Russian IO operations in order to combat future campaigns.

The Senate Armed Services Committee recently heard testimony from several experts on the challenges faced by advanced Information Operations enabled by the immense power of the Internet and social media. Witnesses discussed the complexity of the Russian campaign and the key aspects that gave them an edge. Namely, the United States has traditionally utilized IO campaigns only during times of hostility, and shuts down the effort in times of peace. On the other hand, Russia has viewed IO campaigns as an ongoing process used to supplement their geopolitical efforts.

Witnesses detailed how multiple layers of “active measures” were used by the Russians to shape narratives and themes through the careful channeling of information through outlets catering to specific target audiences, paid shills to echo chosen themes, and hackers to expose information and deface websites.

For more on this topic, visit the HSDL’s featured topics on Cyber Policy and Cyber Crime & National Security

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