The armed forces investigate the use of disinformation

<pre>The armed forces investigate the use of disinformation

Dutch soldiers advise and train soldiers and police in Afghanistan. But, says Lieutenant Colonel Gwenda Nielen, "what if we were to make a fake video of a Taliban leader saying things that are harmful to his position? And if we would post that video in a Facebook group of the Taliban? Could we thereby reduce the deployability of a Taliban unit? "

This is not just a loose thought of Nielen, who works at the recently established Counter Hybrid Unit of the Ministry of Defense. Many soldiers are investigating how the Dutch armed forces can decide conflicts to their advantage in the near future by influencing people's behavior and minds. For example, the Ministry of Defense recently purchased a license for the application of behavioral dynamics methodologya method from the social sciences to seduce target groups into a desired behavioral change.

"Nowadays military action is 'ultimately' about influencing, whereby information is also a weapon," said Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Dekkers, commander of the Defense Intelligence and Security Institute, during a military discussion meeting on this subject this spring: "In warfare people have become central, because it is the psyche that is being influenced. ”Whether it is the behavior and ideas of the local population in a distant country that you support or not support during a military mission or the residents in your home country who no longer trust their government after disinformation from abroad, or the opponents you intimidate with videos or for young people who are fascinated by terrorist propaganda.

Jelle van Haaster, who works at the Ministry of Defense and hobby gamer, collected some images of the latter. He shows screenshots of what young people may encounter during gaming. They are images of the famous online games call of Duty and GTA, but with symbols of Islamic State such as the black flag. "If you get shot online, you sometimes see someone with the black flag in their icon."

The shooter was part of an IS clan within the game. According to Van Haaster, online clans conceal “a whole world of experiences, full of forums where texts and videos are posted.” With its “modern visual language” IS penetrated the psyche of influenceable young people, who also saw how IS “for the gates of Baghdad ”. Hundreds of young people – whether or not influenced by the war game – would fight in Syria on a real battlefield, against (allies of) the Netherlands. "I think we underestimated this phenomenon."

Virtual dimension

This phenomenon shows that a new arena has arisen, "dimension" in military terms. On the old 'physical dimension' – say: a tank that shoots an armored car off the road – and the contemporary 'virtual dimension' – say: hacking the GPS navigation of a hostile tank – now comes the 'cognitive dimension' – say: spreading videos of shooting tanks to scare the opponent. Such action on the battlefield of the spirit is covered information maneuver, or what Patrick Dekker calls 'fighting with information'.

"Information maneuver is not yet an official defense policy, but it is moving in that direction," says Colonel Hans van Dalen, head of the army. "Fortunately we are supported by the top of the Ministry of Defense and the top of the army." That confirms Major General Matthijssen, until recently deputy commander of the army: "After the country maneuver , with units on land, we received the air maneuver, operations with helicopters. Now we are going to work with "information maneuver."

I think we have underestimated this phenomenon

Jelle van Haaster Ministry of Defense and hobby gamer

The battlefield of the human psyche is not new in itself. Military history knows many legendary deception tricks and winning hearts and minds of the civilian population has been an integral part of missions for decades, such as those in Afghanistan. But the size of this battlefield has grown explosively with the advent of the internet and the smartphone. As a result, every citizen of the world is potentially a target in the battle for the spirits.

West European countries such as the Netherlands are vulnerable in that battle, says Nielen. "Our weakness is in our democracy. All opinions may be there, but that also offers room for polarization. ”For example, France is conducting research into Russia's possible involvement in the yellow vest movement. It is unknown whether Russian troll factories are already firing in the Netherlands, for example via the Zwarte Piet debate. "But a troll factory can use such a fault surface to drive polarization," says Nielen.

Soldiers now look primarily at warding off these types of threats. For example, you can protect government movies with a watermark to protect them against manipulation. And recently a soldier was promoted on a dissertation on strengthening the resilience to the ongoing Russian disinformation campaign, leaving a quarter of the Dutch with no idea who took down the MH17 – as research by I&O Research showed. In addition to the recommendation for the introduction of media literacy education programs, he suggests that, for example, the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) can play a role in early signaling of disinformation.

IS editing of Grand Theft Auto.

Soldiers gradually want to go a step further and consult with, among others, intelligence services such as the MIVD about possible actions that are not allowed yet. "If disinformation hardens the debate, we could disable bots and shut down accounts," says Gwenda Nielen. "We could then break into internet forums ourselves and try to convert the narrative. Just like the Russians, we could post other messages and comments under messages so that the discussion is ultimately about something else. This is symptom control, with which we can and must begin. "

In the long term, soldiers must become as agile players as advertisers, says Van Dalen. "Those advertisers are so good that you often buy something without realizing that you have been influenced in the past. We also want that ingenious depth. ”That's why defense has now started working with a marketing method – the marketing behavior dynamics methodology – where target groups are investigated to find out how they can most effectively lead to a change in behavior.

In Mali, where the Netherlands collected intelligence for the United Nations mission until this spring, soldiers have already analyzed the target groups. "The Malian population consists of about eighty groups, all with different interests, who have to be approached in different ways with different messages," says Van Dalen. "You approach one group through religious leaders or tribal elders, the other through social media and yet another by bringing the children to school in a manner of speaking."

Burkina Faso

For the time being, defense is trying to master the method, says Nielen, originally a sociologist. For example, surveys and interviews in the Baltic States, where NATO presence should scare Russia off, investigated what security means to the population. "In Burkina Faso we investigated why security forces use violence against civilians despite our training. This turned out to be partly culturally determined; a large part of the population in the city, for example, seems to be fine if the army in the outlying areas acts hard against shepherd peoples, ”says Nielen. But with a less bloody performance, an army gets more support and therefore becomes more effective.

The latter fits in perfectly with the current performance of the Dutch armed forces. But what if this kind of knowledge about target groups will soon be used, for example, to spawn a population group in a mission area with, for example, an SMS bombardment or to undermine the opponent with a fake video as in the first example? The Dutch government has no principle to cheat, while NATO countries also take a defensive, not offensive, approach with hostile cyber actions and disinformation campaigns.

IS editing of Grand Theft Auto.

Traditionally, what soldiers can and cannot do is determined by the article 100 letter that the government sends to the Lower House for a mission, with the rules of engagement. Influencing actions often take place in the area between peace and war, the "gray zone". Many powers are not (yet) regulated in this, nor are the legal and ethical limits of influence actions. Nielen: “It is being able, willing and allowed. First see what we can do, then what we want and then what we are allowed to do. "

Not much is allowed yet. To break into a private Facebook group, for example, you must present yourself as someone else with a fictional profile. "That is now only allowed by the intelligence services. A commander of a unit in a mission area is not allowed to do that, "says Nielen. "That is why we want to see if we can also give that mandate to such a commander, if only because he can see that a Taliban unit in a Facebook group is announcing an operation against people. And then we do that case by case or standard with certain people in the armed forces? Let's find out."

The next question is to what extent you can go to reach your goal with information. "Manipulating is a dangerous concept," acknowledges Van Dalen. "In theory you are of course not allowed to lie to reach your goal. Anyway, can I exaggerate? Submission? Then may I present things in a more colorful way, such as in advertising? ”

Rather not, says researcher Jurriën Hamers of the Rathenau Institute, which does a lot of research into the information conflict. "Suppose, for example, that you were going to spread disinformation in Russia, you would further undermine Russia's fragile information system. Then you go straight on slippery ice. Do you want that? "

Nielen does not see the objections as follows: "Behavioral influencing is not essentially different from using a tank, but we do not have that discussion about it." "We quickly say: let's not do it. That makes us more cautious in using information on the internet than, for example, the United States. "

Patrick Dekker therefore argues for a 'paradigm shift', in which soldiers energetically embark on information maneuver. "We must have the balls to experiment with this."

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