Weaponization of benign activities

Chinese tourists take a ‘selfie’ at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on November 14, 2016, as Sikh devotees mark the 547th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev. Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of ten Sikh gurus. / AFP / NARINDER NANU Getty Images

Late last year, the Marine Corps released MCDP 1-4 ‘Competing.’ It’s a great pamphlet that captures the nature of the global competition we find ourselves in today. I would recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to know more about what ‘great power competition’ looks like. It’s well-researched and well-written.

Over the summer, I plan on lifting a few things from Competing to explore a little further. The first of these is mentioned on page 4-10 as a part of the ‘common characteristics of our rivals approach to competition.’

‘Weaponization of benign activities.’

While a definition isn’t offered, if you have been paying attention, the concept is almost immediately apparent.

Competing provides a short vignette two pages later which discusses the idea in the context of tourism.

Weaponization of Benign Activities: Tourism in Targeted Countries

Palau is an island nation strategically located east of the Philippines, has only 20,000 citizens, and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. About 2014, China put Palau on its approved list for overseas tourism.

By 2015, Chinese tourists flooded Palau, created a Chinese- funded hotel construction boom, and bought up buildings and apartments. Chinese-owned restaurants and small businesses also started, displacing local enterprises. Chinese tour groups were typically self-contained, staying in Chinese-owned hotels and bringing their own tour guides, which froze out locally owned tourism businesses. The influx of Chinese tourism created divisions between Paulauans benefiting from the tourism and those threatened by the displaced businesses, increased living costs, and damage to the local environment brought by the tourism flood.

In late 2017, Beijing placed Palau off-limits for package tours, dramatically affecting Palau’s economy. The off-limits order was reportedly an effort to put pressure on Taiwan via their relationship with Palau. China used tourism to create an economic dependency and then manipulated it to help them achieve their aims.

MCDP 1-4 Competing p. 4-12

If you follow the footnotes, you’ll land on a 2019 assessment from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail.’ This is what they have to say about the subject:

Weaponization of benign activities. In conducting their political warfare operations, Russia and China have weaponized many normally benign activities. These include but are not limited to diplomatic discussions; conventional and unconventional media operations; tourism into targeted countries; flows of students; visit diplomacy; the establishment of “friendship societies” and similar front organizations; the purchase of well-located pieces of land, key infrastructure, and strategically important companies; accessing, often by stealing, protected intellectual property; managing trade and investment flows; exploiting education systems, and manipulating immigration arrangements.

Ross Babbage, ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail

The weaponization of benign activities will serve as the constant, slow-burn tactic of great power competition. These are events and processes that unfold over years and will be a nuisnance to military, diplomatic, and political leaders who will feel compelled to “do something” in response.

There is a related tactic that we already see every day – and that’s the weaponization of benign information. If you spend any amount of time on social media, you see this when someone includes a screenshot that provides ‘evidence’ of some transgression, however slight or implied. This is a tactic employed by provacateurs and trolls alike. Irrelevant personal details might be tossed on the fire to smear someone. Those details may not add anything useful, but they work as an accelerant with the target audience, carrying unseen weight.

You also see this tactic when headlines are contorted by different organizations to feed a certain narrative.

And of course, you see this when conspiracy theorists posit that some trite piece of information contains hidden meaning.

Words are already loaded with history and stories behind them. Arranged in the right way, they can convey the meaning you want to the right audience and they won’t even have to read the article. Important here, is that this technique is not likely to shift global opinion or ‘win the war.’ Rather, it might nudge the dial just a little bit over time.

More consequently, the weaponization of benign activities/informtation could result in an overreaction, which is why I argue we all need to be a little more patient and let the dust settle when there are bombastic information flare-ups.

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The saga of Tom Olsen

A really fascinating thing happened on Twitter over the past month. Long story short, a fan of of Metal Gear created a Twitter account (@TheTomOlsen). “Tom” is just a regular guy who happens to work on “Big Shell,” the ocean platform that is the setting for most of Metal Gear Solid 2.

Over the course of the month, he posted innocuous photos of daily life on the platform.

The official Metal Gear Twitter account retweeted one of these and rumors began to spread rapidly that the “Tom” account might be a guerilla marketing campaign intended to build enthusiasm for an announcement of a new Metal Gear game. Lots of gaming websites picked up on this and spread the same rumor.

In the end, it was all just the work of a dedicated fan.

Metal Gear Solid 2 is credited as being prophetic of our current environment. A key theme is the spread of misinformation, disinformation and how that plays with our expectations. The game itself constantly teased and harrassed the player, breaking the fourth wall over and over again to make the point.

In the video embedded in tweet below, the force behind “Tom” explains this.

In a strange way, it’s been a very fitting way to memorialize MGS2 — by demonstrating how the rapid transmission of information can lead to the suppression of truth.

Lies spread faster than truth. And even when the lie is refuted, there is a percentage of people who will still only remember the lie.

What I find particularly interesting about this saga is the fact that this must have been well planned and thought out in advance. The deluge of posts, photos, and videos that were shared that “chronicled” the attack on Big Shell were done with purpose – it was polished and professional. The screenshots made it look like Tom was walking through Big Shell snapping photos, taking video, and sharing it with the world. These photos needed to be digitally staged. The force behind Tom knew his target audience. He knew what would get people churning.

This all took work and I’d love to know how long it took to get everything prepped.

The account didn’t respond to others, it had its own agenda. But that didn’t stop others from using it to fit their own narratives or desires.

The account hijacked the fans collective desires and weaponized them for fun. People want a new game, so that’s what they believed. “Tom” never said anything about it, but others filled in the gaps.

Just a really fascinating story.

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“It is happening right now”

Another good episode from the Cogntivie Crucible. And the second podcast I’ve heard featuring LtGen Lori Reynolds (first here, from the Irregular Warfare Initiative).

LtGen Lori Reynolds leads the Marine Corps’ modernization efforts related to operations in the information environment. During this episode, our wide ranging discussion covers competition, professional military education, authorities, technology, and partnerships.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #38 Reynolds on Operations in the Information Environment

LtGen Reynolds does a great job wrapping up the totality of the world we live in today, especially as it relates to media literacy and the fact that we’re all “in the game” when we have a smartphone in our pocket.

The nightmare quote:

“This whole idea of algorithmic warfare, it can be benign, or it can be malign, but it is happening right now. And it’s happening on your personal device.”

Following up.

“If we think that our adversaries are not going to come after the United States military and impact our will to fight, we’re wrong.”

It’s refreshing to know we’re taking this seriously. The tough part is building the education, infrastructure, and systems to be ready before the “Pearl Harbor” of this style of warfare occurs.

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The Red Queen Hypothesis

A lot of Alice in Wonderland this week.

During this episode, Mr. Shomit Ghose of ONSET Ventures outlines the difference between marginal and disruptive innovation. We also talk about the embodiment of the Red Queen Hypothesis and the OODA loop in today’s competitive business climate where companies are expected to innovate quickly in order to stay ahead of their competition.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #36 Ghose on Disruptive Innovation, Amazoogle, and Entrepreneurship

A good, short episode from CC. Here’s the Red Queen Hypothesis from Ghose’s paper:

The Red Queen Hypothesis was put forward by University of Chicago biologist Leigh Van Valen in his seminal 1973 paper on “A New Evolutionary Law”.  In this hypothesis, Van Valen posited that organisms must constantly adapt and evolve because they live in an ever-evolving ecosystem, competing for survival against other ever-evolving organisms.  Everything is competitive, and nothing is constant; it’s explicitly a zero-sum game, and stasis means extinction.  Just as in the Red Queen’s quote to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass.

In business, the Red Queen says that it’s not enough that your company is running as fast as possible, you need to run fast relative to your competition.  With data-driven Amazoogle business models moving at breakneck speeds, how fast is your company running?  If you’re not positioning yourself to out-Amazoogle your Amazoogle competition, then you’re positioned for irrelevance at best and extinction at worst.

The Red Queen and the Inevitability of the Amazoogle Business Model

What is the competition, and what are they doing?

It’s not always going to be possible to beat the competition – they might be bigger, faster, more lethal – or maybe they play by a different set of rules.

If you can’t outcompete them with raw power, then you have to turn to innovation.

I appreciate this quote from the article.

 â€śThe railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer-oriented.”

 Theodore Levitt, “Marketing Myopia”, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1960

A narrow focus on the thing you do versus the field you’re will eventually stifle you. Something – or someone – is going to figure it out. Unfortunately, many of us (myself included) tend to get focused on the important skills that got us to where we are. We’re good at them. They are tried and true – if I can just squeeze a little bit more out, I can get better.

That will work, to a point. Then it’s time to get disruptive.

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Microtargeting as Information Warfare

Good short episode.

During this episode, MAJ Jessica Dawson of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point shares recent research about the social media ecosystem and how it is being weaponized. We also discuss the concept of identity and a new framework for understanding narrative weaponization for the purposes of mobilization and radicalization. Our conversation concludes with Jess’ policy and regulatory recommendations for mitigating risk.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #35 Dawson on Social Media Weaponization

Scariest part comes around the 23:00 mark. The real terror is when AI is well-developed enough to make infleunce/PSYOP automated. It won’t be great, but it will be good enough – and at scale.

And here’s Jessica’s article as referenced in the title.

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IW: Confronting Chinese info-ops in the Pacific

Things are happening. Things have been happening. They don’t always get attention.

In case you missed this from last week.

The Joint Task Force Indo-Pacific team will be focused on information and influence operations in the Pacific theater, a part of the world receiving much the military’s attention because of China’s growing capabilities.

Special Operations team in Pacific will confront Chinese information campaigns

Good.

The team is poised to work with like-minded partners in the region, Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of Special Operations Command, said before the Armed Services Committee. “We actually are able to tamp down some of the disinformation that they [China] continuously sow,” he said of the task force’s efforts.

And finally:

The forward defense concept isn’t just applicable to cyberspace. Clarke described Special Operations Forces, specifically Military Information Support Operations professionals, that are deployed forward and work closely with embassies around the world.

“By working closely with those partners to ensure that our adversaries, our competitors are not getting that free pass and to recognize what is truth from fiction and continue to highlight that to using our intel communities is critical,” he said.

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Storyweapons and Storywarriors

“But in the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness.”

Finally sat down to read this quick article by Renny Gleeson in Cyber Defense Review. Renny works in advertising, which is important, as we don’t often get perspectives on information warfare from outside the military or national security bubble. As such, this take is a bit demilitarized (hence the non-doctrinal term “storyweapon”).

Gleeson makes the argument – as many others have – that we have entered a new realm, where the confluence of marketing, digital media, computers, and psychology have made all of us more vulnerable to manipulation by adversaries. It’s a good recap and overview of things IO professionals should have a solid grasp of – the race to the bottom for clicks, the primacy of emotion over rationality as demonstrated through the important work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, and the fact that none of this is going away.

Nothing new here so far.

What Gleeson argues through his article, though, is that what this all leads to is what he calls the primacy of “storyweapons.” He defines this in his opening line as “adversarial narratives that use algorithms, automation, codespaces, and data to hijack decision-making, and the stories of who we are, what we believe and why it matters.”

Storyweapons, as I read it, are not that much differnt from what we mean when we talk about “narrative warfare,” another non-doctrinal term that gets a lot of attention these days.

And all of these are variations or spin-offs of something doctrinal that we do know: political warfare.

Anyway, to defeat adversarial storyweapons, Gleeson argues that we need to employ our own storyweapons, writing “we need storywarriors on the field, fighting for the best version of America.”

I don’t disagree with that. The problem, as he sees it (and I do too), is that we have a hard time doing that. Here he quotes General (Ret) Jim Mattis who says “a proper understanding of our national story is absent.”

It’s not that we necessarily have to package up ideas, narratives, messages, or whatever, and get it “out there” in the “information environment.” It’s that we have to actually believe in this project – the American story – and project that through action. Certainly there is a role for information operations as it more commonly understood (crafting themes and messages, media, PSYOP, etc.), but there is no calibration or tweaking that fixes all of this.

The concept of “storyweapons” has me skeptical, because it sounds like a simple, short-term solution to a complex, long term problem. Making a “storybomb” and dropping it on a target audience, with the idea that it is going to change something that has a long term tangible result is unlikely. Unfortunately, our incentives are aligned for the short term (politically, operationally, and personally).

Some choice excerpts from the article:

Our stories are more vulnerable than we know: our cognitive systems are hackable by everyone, from kids’ birthday party magicians to infowar adversaries. We do not see the flaws in those systems because they are features of the systems. Storyweapons leverage the infrastructure of perception to misguide, misdirect, and manipulate.

Yes, this is everywhere. And it’s not new. It’s just that many of us are only now realizing it. The advent of the smartphone and the constant notifications represent perhaps the most tactile example of this.

By biological design, outrage, fear, and the unfair light up these lower regions, grab the spotlight of our attention and short-circuit rational thought. 

This is why the ads below articles on websites you might otherwise enjoy are littered with pictures and copy designed to excite or scare you. It’s hard not to click an ad that promises you photos of an actor or actress who you don’t really know but are curious about how they look now or thirty years ago.

The ruthless economic imperative behind the zero-sum wars for attention has fueled the rise of outrage as a business model in the places we connect with who and what we love.

Yes. This also is not new, though. I’d recommend the book The Attention Merchants (2016) which covers the history of advertising. It’s always been a race to the bottom. It’s how you get snake oil salesman and yellow journalism – concepts and tactics that are over a century old. And it’s how we get those stupid ads I just mentioned.

“life-as-software-mediated-experience”

Gross.

We will be alone together: two people looking at the same thing at the same time will sense different things. 

Here he is talking about literally looking at the same space and seeing a different thing, as in advertisements. Imagine walking through a mall or airport and looking at an adverisement on the wall, but you see one thing based on your data while another person sees something else. This is already happening. I think more importantly, we are already living in a world where we can look at the exact same *physical* thing and come to completely different conclusions based on our information diet and the bubble that we live in. To me, this is more frightening. We can look at the nude emperor and admire his clothing, and everyone is okay with it and will say the clothes are beautiful.

Everyone and everything that touches software is effectively on the new Storyweapon battle field; there is no “behind the lines.”

Yes, this is true. I feel confident that the greater public doesn’t know this yet, because a majority of the military isn’t aware of it. There are options for changing this, but it will take time and effort.

You can’t beat a “true enough” storyweapon with facts.

So true.

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