When any military engages in war, leaders understand the potential for damage to the morale of their fighting forces and often have plans in place to address those concerns. But, with today’s information warfare tactics, active engagement in armed conflict is not required to effectively diminish morale or disable a nation’s security operations. Disinformation targeting foreign governments and militaries – including those of the United States – is an age-old tactic that long predates the current Russia/Ukraine conflict. In the social media age, these efforts are increasing in scale and effectiveness.
Politico reported back as early as 2017 that, “Russia has dramatically increased its “active measures” — a form of political warfare that includes disinformation, propaganda and compromising leaders with bribes and blackmail — against the United States. The Russian government is using the same playbook against other pillars of American society, foremost among them the military.”
Just More Propaganda?
Is disinformation just another form of war propaganda? No. While their goals might be similar to those of traditional propaganda campaigns, disinformation campaigns are much more subtle and insidious in their tactics, with results that go far beyond demoralizing enemy morale.
Technology today gives people the ability to amplify – wittingly or unwittingly — deceptive information. Often, disinformation quickly becomes a wildfire that takes on a life of its own. NextGov recently reported that one group tracking Twitter alone found over 650,000 accounts created since the Russia/Ukraine conflict commenced with discussions focused “almost exclusively” on the conflict. The expert quoted in the article confirmed, “It’s likely that at least some of these 650,000 accounts are part of influence or other information campaigns.”
Several factors make these campaigns extremely damaging. First, identifying and shutting down the original source of disinformation is very difficult, if not impossible. Additionally, regular citizens – who may or may not even align with the disinformation – are now able to use powerful technology to amplify the message to the point of becoming a significant threat.
The Perfect Storm
How does disinformation weaken the government’s national security mission? Unlike a typical cybersecurity or a physical security incident, distributing deceptive information isn’t a direct attack that can be detected or prevented using traditional approaches. In the case of disinformation, the attacker targets government personnel with manipulated facts or complete fabrications; lies.
Historically, those who work in public service usually do so in order to feel a sense of unified purpose, knowing they are doing the right thing, committed to goals and objectives that support the larger national interest. In today’s world however, government personnel are serving in a politically divided nation where there is a general distrust of what the public is being told (i.e. about pandemic response, foreign policy, elections, climate change, etc.). This creates a perfect storm for those delivering disinformation campaigns targeting government personnel.
Disillusionment and a general distrust of information can make government personnel question why they went into public service to begin with, compromising both morale and agency operations.
Targets and Tactics
Campaigns executed by both foreign and domestic actors are designed to create one or many results that can diminish or disable government operations:
- Drive down morale of government personnel so that they lose faith in the government, in their agency, and in the overall mission
- Turn the public opinion against agencies, law enforcement, or military
- Induce physical assaults on government agencies, buildings, or landmarks
- Affect the credibility of an agency’s communication, particularly in times of international conflict
- Manipulate or swing opinions, so that our governing system no longer functions as a healthy democracy
How do they achieve these goals? Government personnel are influenced, as is the general public, most commonly by the sheer scale of disinformation that floods social media. A more dangerous tactic we see is manipulating a government official’s social media account or creating a fake agency account, i.e. false personas that appear to be a reputable source of delivering information to the public.
Manipulated Opinions – Everyone has One
Disinformation is an insidious problem that is growing, in part, due to the invention of social media platforms that greatly increased the reach of every individual with access. These mechanisms, originally designed to help connect people around the world, also empower foreign powers to effectively accomplish their mission of manipulating opinion perhaps more effectively than at any time in human history.
The good news is that government security teams have recognized the significance of the problem and are investing in intelligence resources that can identify targets and tactics that get to the heart of disinformation campaigns – the attacker’s motivation. At ZeroFox, our relationships with US government agencies have grown significantly over the past few years, and as part of that, we have seen an interest in disinformation (and less malicious but also concerning, misinformation) grow precipitously.
Weakening National Security, Really?
Is disinformation really weakening the government’s national security mission? Think about it this way, information does not take down a power grid or oil pipelines, but an individual who has been negatively influenced by that information and has access to critical infrastructure networks can. Deliberately deceptive information is fuel that feeds others to execute an attack. The bottom line is that everything is within the realm of possibility once you’ve manipulated opinion. So, the answer is yes. Disinformation weakens national security. Anyone who doubts this need only look to the January 6th riot at the US Capitol and ask themselves, “What caused that violence?”
In closing, I recommend that federal agencies aim to be proactive rather than reactive in applying their intelligence resources. Agency teams need to increase their awareness of how the agency and its personnel are talked about, how the organization or leader is (mis)represented, and most importantly, what the motivation is behind the disinformation. This requires intel support that goes beyond identifying the sources of disinformation to include monitoring closed dark web conversations, providing geopolitical and strategic analysis, and having a mechanism to take down a fake domain or social media profile. This is the work we do at ZeroFox in support of our nation’s security that makes me the most proud.
To get an even greater perspective on recent events that are escalating information warfare and threatening agency security, register for our upcoming webinar Ripped from the Headlines being held on May 4th at 11AM EDT, to hear my discussion with Gregory J. Touhill, former U.S. Federal CISO, current Director of the CERT Division of the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute and Brian Kime, VP of Intelligence Strategy and Advisory at ZeroFox.