Society’s mental state a key battleground for misinformation campaigns, experts say

Society’s mental state a key battleground for misinformation campaigns, experts say

“Fake news can be compared to junk food, as they are much easier (and cheaper) to take and go.” 

select committee
Members of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods during Day 2 of public hearings on Mar 15, 2018. (Photo: MCI)

SINGAPORE: It is possible to win today’s wars without sending in the troops. What the adversary needs to do is to break down a society’s mental state and confidence. 

This was essentially the message conveyed by experts from eastern Europe on Thursday (Mar 15), the second day of the public hearings on deliberate online falsehoods at Parliament House.  

Dr Janis Berzins, director at Center for Security and Strategic Studies at the National Defense Academy of Latvia, said in his written representation that the human mind is the “main battle space” when an influence operation is carried out. Information and psychological warfare dominate in post-modern wars as these achieve superiority by “morally and psychologically depressing an enemy’s armed forces and population”, he explained. 

It is easier for an adversary to achieve its objectives if the society under attack believes their country is a failed state that does not care for the interests and needs of the population, and that the loss of the existing statehood will bring better living conditions, the director wrote. 

“Thus, public discontent with the social and economic development of the state can result in a significant security vulnerability, if war is to be conducted by non-military terms,” Dr Berzins said. 

Ms Nataliia Popovych and Mr Oleksiy Makhunin, respectively the co-founder and head of Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC), added insights on this in their written representation.  

They pointed out that state-sponsored propaganda and disinformation have existed for as long as there have been states, but the major difference in the 21st century is the “ease, efficiency and low cost of such efforts”. 

“FAKES RELY ON STRENGTH OF THE WEAK”

That said, the information war is not just waged using “fakes and falsehoods”, but in the targeting of the people’s resilience or lack thereof. This is because “fakes rely on the strength of the weak (people)”, Ms Popovych and Mr Makhunin said.  

“Fake news can be compared to junk food, as they are much easier (and cheaper) to take and go,” they wrote. “Nevertheless, fakes won’t have any power in (the) media world, unless they fit into powerful narratives and fall onto a weak or unprepared ground.” 

An example of such offensive disinformation campaigns include the identification of major target groups by the most basic characteristics such as nationality, age, sex, race, language and income, the UCMC representatives highlighted.

In Ukraine, for instance, some of these groups that might be manipulated are the Russian Orthodox Church parishioners, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community or foreigners as well as pensioners vulnerable to economic conditions, they said.

Ms Popovych and Mr Makhunin said such disinformation campaigns, particularly from states with vast resources like Russia, will remain and will not disappear from the modern media or political landscape. 

NEED FOR CRITICAL THINKING REITERATED 

As such, they said it is “pivotal” for a state to focus on several areas such as building resilience on a national level by strengthening one’s national civic character as well as “nurture critical thinking, tolerance, humanism and media literacy”.  

Critical thinking and media literacy was also brought up as an area to build up by researchers from Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies on Wednesday. 

Other areas include building systems which enable faster responses to such attacks, and be more creative with “authentic responses and proactive strategic communications”, the UCMC representatives suggested. 

Dr Berzins also touched on this, saying that to integrate resilience into defence planning against information warfare, it is necessary to monitor the “information environment and social resilience”. 

“The main points to neutralise foreign influence should be focused on reducing the gap between politics and politicians and the population,” he added. 

One way is to perform analysis to monitor the population’s “level of openness for influence and the issues and weak points that might be exploited”. This means finding out whether the society in general, or a specific demographic, shows the willingness to defend the country, trust in state institutions, as well as trust the political and judiciary systems, he explained.  

Elaborating on this in his oral representation to the committee, Dr Berzins noted that if politicians and those in power do not have a real understanding of the issues on the ground, mistrust will develop. 

Citing the example of some politicians and officials in the West, who are "disconnected from the reality of the population", Dr Berzins said this could make them an "easy target" for criticism and lies. "One of the tactics of these operations is to spread conspiracy theories," he explained. 

He also noted the importance of creating channels of communication and increase the direct participation of the public and society in formulating public policy.

Another measure is to enhance the critical thinking of the population, government officials and politicians, Dr Berzins said. 

“In this current era, when everything and nothing are true at the same time, the use of public relations by the government and politicians to try to neutralise the effects of bad political choices, policy failures or just incompetence turned to be a plague,” he wrote. 

Rather, he called for those in power to be accepting of criticism and openly discuss failures and problems with the public - and this is “fundamental, even if counterintuitive”. 

SIMPLY BUILDING RESILIENCE NOT ENOUGH

Another expert, Mr Jakub Janda, who heads the European Values Think-Tank in the Czech Republic, said in his written submission that in his country, disinformation operations seem to be quite successful. Four in 10 Czechs blame the United States for the crisis in Ukraine, although there are Russian troops occupying part of Ukrainian territory.

“Already, 53 per cent of Czechs say there is pro-Russian and anti-Russian propaganda in the Czech public space, and we cannot trust anything,” said Mr Janda.

He added that disinformation can have “worrying impacts” if not countered properly. “The public may lose trust in democratic institutions, in free media and in democratic political parties, which is already happening,” he said.

In response to questions from committee member Rahayu Mahzam, Mr Janda, who gave his testimony via video-conference, also proposed four areas of response that any country – including Singapore – can take to defend itself from hostile disinformation. 

The first, he said, is showing that the Government takes the issue seriously, and views hostile disinformation as one of the major national security threats. “That is the only way you can recalibrate some part of your national security establishment to be studying and countering this specific issue,” he said.

Second, the content of hostile disinformation needs to be challenged – whether by teams of strategic communications from the Government, or a “vibrant and strong” civil society, which Mr Janda said can be the “spokesperson of the nation to some extent”.

Third, exposing and investigating the background and networks of disinformation sources. 

“In most of the countries in Europe, the majority of the disinformation narratives or campaigns is not done by a hostile state actor, but by domestic proxies which use inspiration from abroad,” said Mr Janda. He suggested that there be investigative bodies – the media, specialised think-tanks or non-government organisations – to look into the background of these information sources. 

He added that building resilience – by improving media literacy among the population – is the last area of response. But he noted that simply building resilience is not enough, and all four of these steps are essential. 

“If you only keep building resilience, the penetrator or aggressor will keep pushing you to your vulnerabilities,” he said. “And because you’re a democratic society, you will always have some vulnerabilities.”

Source: CNA/lc

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