Disinformation Campaigns – the Continuation of War by Other Means

November 13, 2017

Information warfare is hardly new. During the Cold War, the United States effectively spread anti-Communist propaganda and conducted disinformation campaigns to undermine its ideological opponent and prevent the spread of Communism throughout Eastern Europe. Using various outlets the CIA promoted the efforts of reformist and pro-Western organizations in its bid to undermine the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.

Misleading information is even commonplace in everyday marketing and is deemed acceptable for businesses to embellish information to promote their products. In contrast, it appears that the public views it less accepting for news and social media to promote disinformation

In the globalized era and information age, our news sources and platforms have become digitalized. The mere click of a button can effect financial transfers from one corner of the earth to the other. Power has devolved downwards towards sub-state actors that can act in a transnational manner ranging from civil societal organizations, bloggers and even hackers that can directly undermine the critical infrastructure and even the polity itself. The virtual erosion of borders poses a challenge to the Westphalian state system as traditionally threats towards the state unit emanated solely from inter-state conflict. The emergence of the global village saw threats emerge from sub-state terrorist actors such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. This has evolved to disinformation campaigns and hacking conducted by individuals or groups that operate individually or are sponsored by foreign states. These cyber-attacks are modern weapons that are wielded at will across borders.  

As opposed to traditional warfare where the enemy was identifiable and 
the impact of attacks on strategic interests and national security clearly 
ascertained, today the source disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks 
can be unattributable with its impact upon security and sovereignty 
unknown. Cyber warfare not only undermines national sovereignty, but 
evades the reaches of international law as it is a cost-effective 
option as opposed to traditional modes of conflict which cannot be 
effectively managed. However one might promote national or multilateral 
legislation to curb cyber warfare, the anonymity of 
attackers along with their sponsors may evade recognition.

Information warfare tactics on the other hand can exploit societal divisions in other countries along with using “fake news,” social media manipulation and amplification through bots, targeted advertising and weaponized stolen information.

It is not only the United States that has been embroiled in controversy regarding foreign attempts to influence their elections, but France, Germany and the Netherlands have also faced similar challenges. In the United States, the Global Engagement Center (GEC) situated in the State Department has been tasked with countering foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation that targets the U.S. and its interests. The GEC is in the process of determining the resources, skill-sets and strategies that are required to effectively counter propaganda and disinformation in the digital age. More fundamentally the United States must determine the substance of the narrative it seeks to promote to counter propaganda and disinformation. While the disinformation technologies and techniques have rapidly evolved, the United States has not even determined precisely how it impacts upon their national security interests.

This led to a lack of preparation to offset disinformation campaigns such as those used during the 2016 US Presidential elections. The disinformation techniques used were very rudimentary and yet were effective. Paul Vesely, CEO of Stonehenge Digital who operates in the sphere of covert disruptive campaigns weighs in with his opinion:

The reason the techniques used on social media were so effective during the 2016 US Presidential elections was because the messaging was segmented perfectly per target audience. This created both engaging and sometimes infuriating content tailored to appeal to specific segments of the US population. This simple yet effective marketing technique allowed millions of Americans to not just digest but crave the narrative these fake news accounts were spurting out. The second reason why the disinformation campaign was so successful was because it seemed to come from grassroots supporters even though it was being led by avatars. There is no greater power of influence than over people in a segmented group with similar interests one another’s outlook in an effective echo chamber.

This echo chamber allowed real people to be involved with avatars and social group administrators who directed conversation and released information that varied in spectrum from being loosely based on truth all the way to being completely fictitious. No matter how distant the content was from the truth, when agreed upon and repeated in a group it was extremely effective.


Cyber attackers and disinformation campaigns can exploit the flawed techniques used across the West to inform citizens, which naturally promotes disinformation. Examples of this range from polling, focus groups and white papers.

Polling – Elections in Britain, Germany and the United States as well as Brexit revealed polling numbers and predictions to be grossly out of step with the results. In the United States, polling data during the primary voting season also missed the mark for a majority of outcomes. Reasons for inaccurate data include: lack of anonymity, fear of peer and societal pressure or judgment.

Focus groups – Dominant members of a group can sway the opinions of others. Weaker members of the group may fear to mention items that could be judged insignificant and will seek to avoid being ridiculed – even through the best efforts of the mediator.  

White Papers – Often written in a vacuum by corporate academics who do a tremendous amount of research from open sources are often biased due to being one sided thus failing to see the bigger picture, (intentional and unintentional), uninformed and are never challenged or verified. To this end, at best they serve to become governmental or media propaganda.  These researchers have often never actually been ‘on the ground’ to gather information and facts from sources or the people directly. As a result it becomes largely a theoretical exercise that when implemented often leads to failure. Corporations spend millions on ‘papers and research’ rather than spending the money to put people on the ground, employ field teams and determine issues from an accurate and practical position. The organic situation on the ground is not static but kinetic. Once these white papers go through the bureaucratic process of getting approved the strategies advanced are outdated and out of step with policies. It is essential to send out messages effectively and in real time to and from people on the ground.

Media Monitoring based on statistical data to advance long-term plans is now done by databases that go through transcription, recording and analysis which are far more accurate and more cost-effective than paying humans to sit around to watch and record the news. It also takes away human error and bias, which misconstrues the collected data for analysis.

Clausewitz’s aphorism that

War is the continuation of politics by other means

referred to the occasional eruption of conflict. The globalized, information and digital age has not made war a more frequent phenomena but a constant aspect of our lives undermining the Westphalian state unit, liberal democracy and the effective activities of transnational civil-societal organizations.

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Barak Seener

Barak Seener is the CEO of Strategic Intelligentia and former Middle East Fellow at the defense and security thinktank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)