A ‘crystal ball’ for info warfare

mass effect andromeda artificial intelligence

Two short articles I came across recently.

The first: Google exec to UN: Ukraine ‘a crystal ball’ for info warfare

“States must find a way to turn the volume down and settle on some kind of deterrence doctrine for the cyber domain,” Jared Cohen said at a council meeting on hate speech, incitement and atrocities in Ukraine. 

He argued that while tech companies have needed expertise, “there is no magical algorithm or single fix for this,” and finding a solution will take a lot of experimentation.

And then, later in the article:

A recent report from Mandiant, a cyber security firm, found that Russia used disinformation, fear and propaganda to demoralize Ukraine and divide its allies.

“Hate speech can also be a war crime,” British deputy U.N. Ambassador James Kariuki said Tuesday, calling on Russia to “stop making such statements.”

And then this: Why We Fall for Disinformation

A good primer on the psychology that underpins the effectiveness of propaganda.

Here’s the offered solution:

Our analysis, suggests another path that merits additional attention: empowering individual citizens to reject the disinformation that they will inevitably encounter. Our work outlines two promising categories of techniques in this vein. One is to provide preventive inoculation, such as warning people about the effects of disinformation and how to spot it. The other is to encourage deeper, analytical thinking. These two techniques can be woven into training and awareness campaigns that would not necessarily require the cooperation of social media platforms.

I don’t think the above is wrong, but I have little confidence that this can be accomplished quickly. Critical thinking skills take years to develop. And one of the chief problems here is that everyone thinks they have those skills and they can see clearly. It’s those “other” guys who are being duped.

We’ve been hunting for a solution to this for a long time.


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The Third Person Effect

men reading newspapers on a train

People tend to overestimate their confidence and ability in things and discount the same in others.

We see this most clearly in driving confidence and ability.

73% of Americans believe that they are a “better-than-average” driver.

Instantly, we know something must be wrong.

There is a similar phenomenon in psychology called the third-person effect.

“…people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others. More specifically, individuals who are members of an audience that is exposed to a persuasive communication (whether or not this communication is intended to be persuasive) will expect the communication to have a greater effect on others than on themselves. And whether or not these individuals are among the ostensible audience for the message, the impact that they expect this communication to have on others may lead them to take some action. Any effect that the communication achieves may thus be due not to the reaction of the ostensible audience but rather to the behavior of those who anticipate, or think they perceive, some reaction on the part of others.”

The argument here isn’t that propaganda works. The argument is that there are many people who believe propaganda doesn’t work on them, but they have concerns that it works on others.

That concern may lead the same enlightened people to take action which ultimately makes the propaganda effective.

In Davidson’s paper, he cites a couple of examples from military history that takes advantage of this. One is very similar to the technique Saddam Hussein purportedly used during the Iran-Iraq War to ground the Iranian F-14 fleet.

The History of the Psychological Warfare Division, Supreme Headquarters, Alled Expeditionary Force (Bad Homburg, Germany, 1945) tells us about Operation Huguenot – a project for undermining the efficiency of the German Air Force by suggesting that German flying personnel were deserting in their machines to the Allied side.

The Psychological Warfare Division history tells:

“The dividends from this operation were expected not so much in the actual number of desertions as in the effect of the countermeasures which the German authorities would be induced to take against glying personnel… sharpening up of anti-desertion measures and instructions to field polict to keep a suspicious eye on everyone – a course which would have serious effects on morale. Also, the promotion of officers on account of reliability rather than efficiency (p. 53).”

The Third Person Effect in Communication

It wasn’t about actually getting Germans to defect. It was about getting the German military to take action – unnecessary, painful action – to prevent defections from taking place.

The lesson here, as is often the case when it comes to propaganda, is to exercise patience, discretion, humility, and trust.

Patience to not react just because something happens in the information environment.

Discretion to be selective about what levers we choose to pull if and when we do react.

Humility to acknowledge that we are all vulnerable.

Trust in each other that they can do the above as well.

No matter how smart we think we are, or how immune we may be to the effects of slick marketing, social media algorithms, or plain old-fashioned propaganda, we are all made up of the same stuff as the person next to us.

We’re all vulnerable. Understanding that is the beginning of beating it.


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Administrative Warfare: Deception + third person effect

iran f-14 winnie the pooh posing

The use of deception and the third-person effect to exploit an administrative process for military advantage.

He knew that they were paranoid.

He knew that the Iranians guarded their oil facilities with their F-14s, and his Air Force [the Iraqi’s] was terrified of dog-fighting the F-14s because at the time the F-14 was pretty much unmatched as a fighter aircraft.

So he figured the best way to get our aircraft to strike the oil refinery is to get the F-14s out of the air and the only way to get them out of the air is to ground them.

We don’t have the means to strike their airfield, so he called one of the Gulf leaders, I’m not sure if it was the Saudi king or somebody else, and he essentially told them, “Hey, we have received intelligence that an Iranian F-14 wants to defect in a couple of nights and they are going to come to your country, so just keep an eye out – there’s an F-14 coming.”

[Saddam] knowing full-well that that Gulf leader was going to leak that information to the Iranians – they did.

The Iranians heard ‘one of your F-14s is going to defect.

They panicked and put all of the F-14 pilots in jail, and while all the F-14 pilots were in jail being investigated for a possible treason plot, Saddam struck the oil refinery.

Aram Shabanian, How the Iran-Iraq War Shaped the Modern World, Angry Planet

Photo source.


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