Editors Note: The Project on International Peace and Security (PIPS) is one of the premier undergraduate think tanks in the country. Based at W&M’s Global Research Institute, PIPS is designed to bridge the gap between the academic and foreign policy communities in the area of undergraduate education.
PIPS research fellows identify emerging international security issues and develop original policy recommendations to address those challenges. Undergraduate fellows have the chance to work with practitioners in the military and intelligence communities, and they present their work to policy officials and scholars at a year-end symposium in Washington, DC.
Below are the summarized findings of PIPS Research Fellow, Lincoln Zaleski who discusses his research on combatting authoritarian disinformation campaigns.
By Lincoln Zaleski ’20
Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming presidential election, and the Black Lives Matter protests, disinformation campaigns have run rampant throughout American society. False and inflammatory rhetoric about wearing masks, paid protestors, the dangers of mail-in voting, and even the existence of COVID-19 have spread across social media, echoed by mainstream media and elected officials. Unsurprisingly, much of the disinformation surrounding these major events originates in authoritarian regimes that seek to exploit inherent democratic vulnerabilities.
While the United States has identified many individual information warfare tactics, no consensus has emerged about a strategic framework for understanding how disinformation campaigns operate. This white paper provides a conceptual framework for understanding authoritarian disinformation campaigns, building on the ink spot approach to countering insurgencies. Using an array of precision targeting and data collecting technologies, authoritarian regimes identify key individuals and groups in the United States to reinforce, shape, and connect. The regimes seek to create a domestic network of influential “ink spots.” Hostile or antagonistic governments then use these sympathetic spots to undermine U.S. policy and democracy through constant reinforcing and manipulation of identity and beliefs.
Disinformation is not a new threat. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union established information warfare tactics to sow discord against the United States amongst Western allies, the American public, and the global population. Using a combination of written and oral disinformation perpetrated by coerced or sympathetic foreign journalists, politicians, and political parties, the Soviet Union established a coordinated global process to gain an advantage in a perceived ongoing, existential conflict with the West. However, while Soviet disinformation often successfully deceived individuals, their actions remained traceable to target governments and limited in scope, preventing any widespread permeation of Russian messaging within the US population.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, emergent technology has allowed the Soviet disinformation techniques, known as “active measures,” to flourish. Artificial intelligence, hacking, and improved surveillance systems allowed data collection on a massive scale. Social media bots and algorithmic decision-making improved identification of target audiences and accessibility to them. Deepfakes and virtual reality allowed realistic manipulation of reality. These new technologies allowed active measures messaging to reach a broader audience and penetrate past the American institutional protections.
Ink Spot Disinformation establishes a strategic concept for these technology-enabled disinformation campaigns. Ink Spot Disinformation includes traditional top-down targeting, where regimes coerce, blackmail, or politically and economically support influential individuals and corporations to disseminate false messaging. Ink Spot Disinformation also includes emergent bottom-up targeting, where authoritarian actors identify and target marginalized identity groups and co-ethnic communities with false messages, eventually linking susceptible individuals in a connected network to influence American policy and polarize democratic society.
The key to combating authoritarian-led Ink Spot Disinformation is increasing the cost of the campaign for the aggressor. To impose a cost on bottom-up Ink-Spot Disinformation, a counteroffensive disinformation campaign targeting the inherent vulnerabilities of authoritarian regimes should be considered. Authoritarian regimes have vulnerable targets inherent in their structure that can be exploited and converted into liberal democratic ink spots. Ultimately, authoritarian regimes will realize that widespread domestic dissent and economic failure at home reveal their own inherent vulnerabilities to disinformation, deterring further information warfare. By targeting inherent authoritarian weaknesses, counter-offensive disinformation campaigns can limit the scope of Ink-Spot Disinformation at home.
Read Lincoln Zaleski’s full findings in his white paper (pdf) or watch his video briefing.
For more information on the Project on International Peace and Security visit the GRI website.