In 2008 Russian troops advanced into South Ossetia after weeks of military posturing between Georgia and the Kremlin. The world watched as tanks, aerial sorties, and ground troops conducted a massive military operation designed to “free” the people of South Ossetia from Georgian oppression. Dubbed a “Peace Enforcement Operation” the Russian military decimated the Georgian troops and established a foothold in the region. The First European War of the 21st Century was over and done before any world leader could deliver a competent statement. As the world moved on, a substantial piece of the puzzle was left out and even today is rarely spoken of; Russia engaged in a full-scale, nation-on-nation, cyber war which all but allowed them to march right into Transcaucasia. And as of February 2017, they show every intention of doing it again.
Today, western media broke a story about Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s speech to parliament. While he talked about the increase in planes, missiles, other hardware, the media focused on one key phrase; “information warfare troops.” The phrase alone is enough to launch worldwide lectures on the use of weaponized information, but what Shoigu said next was one-hundred times more significant, Russian propaganda needs to be “clever, smart, and efficient.” In another article posted hours after the AP, Retired Col. General Leonid Ivashov followed Shoigu’s statement with this little gem, “We must stop offering excuses and force the West into the defensive by conducting operations to expose its lies.”This comment was made in reference to Russian propaganda.
We are left with two distinct possibilities here; they are saber-rattling, or, they are serious about ramping up their cyber army. A quick review of history shows Russia does not shy away from a cyber element where it benefits them. All election paranoia and accusations aside, one cannot deny that if (capital IF) the Kremlin did substantially interfere in the recent US Election, it was one of the most masterful uses of propaganda to cripple a country since WWII. When you take what happened in Crimea and combine it with the Kremlin’s influence in the Euromaidan, you get the idea they aren’t just swinging their swords.
Let’s assume we can take Shoigu and the dear Colonel General Ivashov (totally sounds like a 007 villain’s name BTW) at their word. After all, we have no reason to doubt they are telling the truth. How would Russia use this new cyber battalion against the west?
The easiest answer is social media. In fact, they would not have to work very hard at all. Much of the population in the United States and Canada seem to get their daily news from their social media feeds and they have no compunction over posting or tweeting false information. The examples are far too many to list, but for the sake of argument, here are two biggies; Police near the #NoDAPL protest blew a woman’s arm off with a grenade, and Donald Trump evicted an MLK bust from the White House. Look at the impact these two stories had on social media. The word viral barely even covers the amount of traffic driven by a few false accusations. Imagine a series of false stories pushed into the echo chambers of hundreds of thousands of people, already predisposed to forwarding false information. One could literally drive millions of enraged people into the streets with nothing more than a few clicks. And it is extremely easy.
We must assume this level of warfare is already in-play. This does not mean we need to be paranoid about every link in our Facebook feed, but we do need to carefully consider the impact intentionally false stories have on our society and be ready to counter the effects. Perhaps it is time to ensure our cyber armies are armed with a cadre of people trained to seek out the false information, correctly attribute its origins, and then strike back.