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Psychological cyberwar, or just plain propaganda

Posted by on February 1, 2015.

February 1, 2015

“The British military,” the Independent reported yesterday, “is setting up a specialist force modelled on the Chindits, the commandos who gained renown through their daring missions behind enemy lines in Burma during the Second World War.”

But this force is not simply designed to get behind ISIS lines and fight Orde Wingate’s guerilla war. This force is designed to tackle the enemy in cyberland: on the Twitter Plains and Facebook Heights.

They will specialise in “non-lethal” forms of psychological warfare, using social media including Facebook and Twitter to “fight in the information age”.
New British Army unit ‘Brigade 77’ to use Facebook and Twitter in psychological warfare

There are problems here. If psychology is directed against a national enemy, it can genuinely be called ‘psychological warfare’. If it is not directed against a national enemy, it is simply government propaganda. How can you target an enemy on Twitter Plains without also targeting your own people?

One way would be to adopt the tactics of the Syrian Electronic Army (and now Lizard Squad) in hacking the accounts of your enemies and altering the message they give out. That would be more like Orde Wingate because you could legitimately claim that you are behind enemy lines. But the SEA approach to cyberwar is not effective. SEA has not changed public opinion about Bashar al-Assad.

But if you don’t target your enemy and simply attempt to win hearts and minds on the open fields of Twitter, then what you are doing is less psychological cyberwar and more government propaganda. Now there is not enough information in the Independent article to know what this new unit intends to do or how it intends to operate. But if it is targeting hearts and minds on Twitter and Facebook, it is targeting the hearts and minds of everyone who can read the language being used.

What isn’t clear is how it intends to do anything different to what the west already does; and to what extent it will specifically be targeted at its own people. Government propaganda is already extensive and subtle. It already exists on Facebook and Twitter. It exists through government leverage of pro-government media combined with censorship-by-omission enforced, in the UK at least, by the DA-Notice.

The DA-Notice is technically a voluntary procedure, but it carries with it a veiled threat. If you’ve ever wondered why there has been little discussion about the UK’s involvement in the US PRISM program in the UK press, it’s because the press is prohibited from doing so by DA-Notice. The threat is that failure to abide by DA-Notices will trigger statutory restrictions on the press. That threat was voiced by David Cameron on 28 Octover 2013:

…the prime minister said his preference was to talk to newspapers rather than resort to the courts. But he said it would be difficult to avoid acting if newspapers declined to heed government advice.
David Cameron makes veiled threat to media over NSA and GCHQ leaks

Hollywood is a major source of government propaganda fed to us on a daily basis. We’ve already noted American Sniper (We are all victims of the War on Terror), but it is usually more subtle and persistent. Consider the hugely popular television program, NCIS. In this, McGeek regularly hacks into any personal computer, openly illegally, whenever Gibbs wants and without judicial sanction. But it’s alright, because these Feds are good guys and they are only doing so to avert serial killings and terrorist outrages – that is, they are our friends and they protect us so what they do must be good.

My concern now is that the new 77 Brigade (given the same name as the original Chindits) will perfect new and even more subtle methods to indoctrinate all of us – not just our ‘enemies’ – into correct thinking.

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