The Russian strategic decision to value information dominance over cyber warfare is reaping major dividends in sowing distrust among the Western democracies, a former director of the CIA and NSA said on Monday.
In the 1990s, “Russia went to door number two” in choosing information dominance, partially because many in the Kremlin then were familiar with its uses, tactics, techniques and procedures before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden said
Moscow gravitated toward social media’s tendency to connect individuals to likeminded members and communities that “drives you into your self-created ghetto.” Russians say the potential of the technology useful to sow confusion and discord in otherwise functioning societies, he said during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
When so many receive their news through social media, the public is being fed a diet of their own preferences, building upon senses of loyalty, tribalism and grievance, Hayden said.
These messages often on both sides of a trending issue “pop up in American media” and Russians “ride them to the extreme.”
As a result of this campaign across a variety of platforms, “a lot of people [in the United States] don’t believe we are the good guys,” having been fed a steady diet of “uncurated news” from questionable sites that are repeatedly attacking the intelligence community, law enforcement, science and journalism. “These are all fact-based institutions,” Hayden said.
As with the Soviet Union’s disinformation campaigns, the Kremlin today, even if exposed, is only trying to maintain “plausible deniability” as President Vladimir Putin has claimed in discussions with President Donald Trump over meddling in the 2016 American election, he said.
Joining Hayden in the discussion was author Seth Jones, who noted that under Ronald Reagan, the administration assessed what the Soviets were doing and developed a strategy to counter their propaganda, outright lies and disinformation with facts.
The Reagan administration discovered the Soviets then and Russia today said the United States and the West “poorly understood” and only “infrequently countered” the systematic campaign “to discredit and weaken them” before they acted, Jones said.
The Russians don’t have to create the issue but through social media “they can multiple the issue” and “drive the discussion” by playing pro and con in the postings, Heather Conley of CSIS said.
In developing an effective counter-strategy to the Kremlin, Jones said the Reagan administration also provided groups tools they needed to spread the word in Eastern bloc countries about life in the West.
Noting that the Kremlin, now as it was the 1980s, is vulnerable to outside influences, leaking into their supposedly closed societies and throwing into question what it says is happening domestically or in the West.
To help domestically, the trio called upon President Trump to make a personal push to address the problems found with social media during the 2016 election and seek ways to better educate the public on real news vs. fact news, so it can be better informed as citizens in a democracy.
Conley suggested a bipartisan commission, similar to the one created following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks would have been a preferred way to proceed. Lacking that, “we need new structures” that are bipartisan and transparent “to rebuild trust at the community level” in American institutions.