At a glance.
- Social media, social unrest, and self-inflicted damage.
- A threat communicated over FAA channels.
- The strange and sad case of the Nashville suicide bomber.
Social media, rioting, and physical compromise.
Yesterday's rioting in DC, and smaller, similarly inspired disruptions elsewhere, suggest how positive, albeit at least partially misinformed goals can coincide with the negative, purely disruptive aims of active disinformation campaigns. From the summer's progressive stormtroopers' rampages from Portland to Minneapolis to last night's appalling riot by populist goons on Capitol Hill, the latter up in arms over President Trump's loss of the election, the discord surrounding the US Presidential contest has gone about as well as the most malign foreign ill-wishers could have desired. They probably had little-to-nothing to do with immediate provocation of yesterday's riots (there was enough domestic incitement to go around), but it's easy to imagine satisfaction on the faces of every GRU officer in the Aquarium.
This week's riot was connected with claims of a stolen election much amplified over social media. In this respect President Trump has come in for considerable criticism, as he’s for weeks contested the fairness and legitimacy of the election, as he’s entitled within reason to do. He'd also more recently encouraged demonstrators to come to Washington and express their displeasure with the outcome. His last tweet yesterday urged demonstrators to be peaceful, but that unfortunately seemed to have small effect. The Wall Street Journal reports that Twitter has suspended the President for the next few days, and that Facebook has kicked him off its platforms at least until he leaves office. Those moves do seem closer to a response to immediate incitement than they do to discourse-controlling content moderation of the kind that's so far remained difficult to impossible to mount in any sort of viewpoint-neutral fashion.
The information-operational potential of the DC riot has yet to be exhausted. Not only will the usual accusations and counter-accusations be exchanged, with plenty of opportunity for conspiracy mongering and maliciously intended disinformation, but the physical access the rioters obtained to computers inside the Capitol (Reuters reports, for example, that Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, said that rioters took a laptop from a desk in his office) will also give operators a great deal of raw material and, above all, a priori suspicion to work with.
False flag or disinformation of the deed?
Largely lost in reports of unrest and protest on the ground was an incident Monday in which, the Wall Street Journal reports, a threat to crash an aircraft into the US Capitol on Wednesday was transmitted over an air-traffic control channel used by the Federal Aviation Administration. The threat said, in part, "We are flying a plane into the Capitol Wednesday," and went on to suggest that the attack would be retaliation for the US drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. The frequency over which the message was sent is assigned to the FAA air traffic control center in Ronkonkoma, New York, a facility that directs high-altitude traffic around the New York City metropolitan area.
Sources speculated to the Journal that the message was sent using a scanner that had transmit as well as receive capabilities. Such scanners are available to pilots, but also to aviation enthusiasts. There's no attribution of the message, and nothing in particular beyond its content to suggest Iranian responsibility. It could be a disruptive false flag operation by another state, by a politically motivated hacktivist, or simply by a crank.
Individual delusion and kinetic mayhem.
A recreational vehicle loaded with explosives detonated in downtown Nashville, Tennessee on Christmas morning. On December 26th the New York Times published a summary of what investigators had so far determined about the attack. There was one death, and that was the driver and bomber, who's been identified as one Anthony Quinn Warner of Antioch, Tennessee. He parked next to an AT&T building and broadcast a loudspeaker warning shortly before the bomb went off: "Evacuate now. This vehicle has a bomb and will explode. Evacuate now." The AT&T building was heavily damaged by the explosion, and telecommunications routed through the facility were disrupted as a result, but authorities have been reluctant to conclude that AT&T was the target.
Nonetheless, the position of the truck bomb strikes many observers as at least suggestive. Investigation continues, but preliminary indications suggest that Mr. Warner held an array of bizarre beliefs that may have inspired his sad suicide attack. One initial line of investigation, the New York Post reported, was that the bomber believed that 5G technology was a threat. A realtor for whom Mr. Warner had done some IT work told the FBI that their person of interest had expressed such concerns to him, and irrational fears of 5G have inspired acts in the past, both in North America and Europe. These have for the most part involved vandalism of cell towers. But the bomber's eccentric beliefs may not have been confined to 5G. Nashville news outlets, like WTVF, report that Mr. Warner left behind notes on lizard people and UFOs, both staples of American fringe culture. WZTV said this week that, while Mr. Warner may have been "anti-government" and "anti-police," the FBI had concluded that the lack of evident political motivation warranted not treating the bombing as a terrorist act.
Thus the case may represent (and we emphasize that the investigation is still in progress) an extreme case in which popular delusions fall on all-too-fertile soil.