The zombies of disinformation

The global financial crisis and the information technology revolution have created a perfect storm. Governments must act

Demonstration in Barcelona calling for sacked Catalan ministers to be released.
Demonstration in Barcelona calling for sacked Catalan ministers to be released.Massimiliano Minocri

Ivan (@Ivan226622) is smiling in his Twitter profile picture. He is seated at a table in a busy restaurant with three women. By way of introduction, he says: “I love technology and business news...please join me now! :)”

Since signing up to the social media platform in November 2012, Ivan has tweeted 597,000 times, or an average of 326 times a day. He has 1,323 followers. Then there is Rick (@rickrick888). Rick describes himself as the Lion Of Judah; he joined Twitter in March 2009 and has tweeted an average of 198 messages a day since then. He has 1,905 followers. Finally, there is Bobbit (@bobbit2266) who says he lives in “The Universe,” and who joined Twitter back in October 2009. He has 1,473 followers and sends out an average of 143 tweets a day.

But there’s a hitch. Although Ivan, Rick and Bobbit all look like different people with real lives, they all tweet about the same thing at the same times. Their messages go out 24 hours a day and their sources are always the same: mainly the Russian news outlets RT and Sputnik. And from September 29 to October 9, the three Twitter profiles each tweeted out 139 news items about Catalonia created by RT and Sputnik, the majority of them attacking the institutions of the Spanish state.

Ivan, Rick and Bobbit are all "zombies." They are part of an online army of robot profiles, who, armed with gasoline canisters brimming with fake news, stalk social media and fan the flames of debate as ordered by their generals. At the beginning of October, this army went to work on the issue of Catalan independence. Evidence shows a total of 87% of the 65 accounts who most shared RT and Sputnik content were automated. Those accounts helped ensure that Russian news outlets were the fourth most influential in the digital conversation about Catalonia.

The economic and institutional crisis that struck – above all – Europe, the Middle East and the United States in 2008 led to traumatic damage to the social contract that linked citizens with their public institutions and it seriously damaged public trust in traditional media.

This understandable and justifiable citizen discontent provoked by the economic crisis, the cuts to public services and the emergence of countless cases of political corruption coincided with a technological revolution that changed the way public opinion was created.

Institutions, governments, and traditional media outlets have lost the monopoly on the creation and distribution of effective, hegemonic messages aimed at citizens. Any person, organization, group or movement can now compete with governments and established media groups when it comes to the design and distribution of messages and feelings, and even new identity alignments.

However, the many positive consequences of the democratization of public debate are being overshadowed by the systematic, deceitful and undercover use being made of the new communication platforms to deliberately cause negative disruption in the systems of government, in institutions and even in businesses: all of this is being done to deepen the crisis of confidence among citizens and accelerate the collapse of the social contract on which the legitimacy of nation states is founded.

In the same way that the invention of the printing press in the 15th century led to radical changes in governance and gave birth to the modern age, the advent of new information technologies and of social media has caused a political earthquake, the consequences of which are worrying and still impossible to predict.

The legitimate frustration of millions of citizens with their institutions, the collapse of the social contract and the telecommunications revolution have created a perfect storm that has led, at the beginning of the 21st century, to the resurgence of nationalism, populism and religious extremism in the heart of liberal democracies.

It is impossible to explain, for example, the astonishing rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) without analyzing the campaign of digital disruption that saw 35,000 young people from 100 countries around the world seduced by an emotional and culturally familiar narrative – a message given mass distribution and targeted at different audience segments. The campaign involved the distribution of 1,500 professional videos in three years. Some 35 audiovisual producers were involved as were hundreds of thousands of troll accounts on social media. Over the course of three years, the Caliphate communicated more, and better, than any other public institution or multilateral organization.

The elite units of a global confrontation heading toward war are scriptwriters and community managers. The resurgence of new extremisms, nationalisms and populisms is based on the creation of epic, Manichean, and sentimental narratives where the idea of victim-hood is critical. At the same time, they are based on half-truths that channel and provide simple answers to the legitimate discontent felt by people. These narratives – more focused on boosting discontent than providing solutions – are published on networks with little credibility and then distributed by digital profiles that are often working in the trenches of anonymity or form part of the legion of zombies controlled by robots.

The scenario sketched by the Chinese generals Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui in their definition of “unrestricted warfare” is now coming true, even down to the fine print.

“We can mention a series of means and news methods used to carry out a non-military war. Some of these methods already exist, but others will exist in the future," the two generals write. “These new means and methods include psychological warfare (spreading rumors that intimidate the enemy and destroy their spirit) and communication warfare (manipulating what people see and hear to lead public opinion),” they add.

The survival of the modern nation state and liberal democracies depends above all on the public institutions regaining the trust of citizens and reinstating the social contract. Political parties and governments must take a brave and effective lead in the fight on corruption and make sure that progress leaves no citizen behind. At the same time, governments and civil society must prepare themselves to fight the “unrestricted warfare” of misinformation carried out by zombies such as Ivan, Rick and Bobbit.

The former director of the CIA James Woolsey, in Ion Mihai Pacepa’s book Disinformation, quotes words ascribed to former KGB director Yuri Andropov: “Disinformation is like cocaine – sniff once or twice, it may not change your life. If you use it every day, though, it will make you an addict – a different man.”

State institutions, states and businesses must adapt to ensure that the drug of disinformation does not contaminate and alter the basic rules of the democratic system. The supervising, monitoring and counteracting of external actions designed to erode confidence in public institutions through half-truths, hoaxes, confusion and the use of false or non-existent sources is also a priority.

Javier Lesaca is a visiting scholar at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

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