At a glance.
- Iranian influence operations.
- Nigeria seeks to crack down on social media.
- China seeks to crack down on the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
- Tactical disinformation: a thought experiment.
- New respect for the lab leak theory (and "new respect," note, is not the same thing as "evidence").
Troll-farming and Iranian influence operations.
Time reports that Tehran has stepped up influence operations targeting American opinion. The surge, which Time dates roughly to April, followed a period of relative quiescence. Similar levels of Iranian disinformation hadn't been seen since the electoral defeat of former President Trump by President Biden last November. (Iran had been for the most part in the anti-Trump camp, with, for example, provocations that involved clumsy gestures toward Democratic voter suppression that would reliably be attributed to the Trump campaign.) The recent surge appears correlated with several distinct events: "Biden’s effort to return the U.S. to the Iran nuclear deal, the April 14 announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin on April 20, and the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas that started on May 10."
Some of the influence operations (like those occasioned by the Chauvin verdict) have been negative in intent, designed simply to make opportunistic use of fissures in civil society to promote ill-will and mistrust. These are in what has become familiar as the Russian style. The others seek a positive outcome, and attempt to persuade the audience to a particular point of view, which is much more in what we might call Beijing's style. Prominent among these efforts have been the anti-semitic tropes Iran has circulated since the onset of fighting in and around Gaza. Much of the messaging has been communicated through front sites and inauthentic social media personae.
“Foreign malign influence is an enduring challenge facing our country,” Time quotes Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on the occasion of the March release of a study of election influence. She added, “These efforts by U.S. adversaries seek to exacerbate divisions and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.” Haines is organizing an office, the Foreign Malign Influence Center, to study hostile influence operations.
Suppression of social media in Nigeria.
Concerned that social media, notably Twitter, are harming social stability and fomenting unrest, Nigeria has banned both Twitter and the VPNs people might use to circumvent the ban. TechCrunch says the government regards Twitter as a threat to the nation's "corporate existence." The Sahara Reporters write that Lagos, eager to learn from the best, has been consulting with Beijing on how best to erect an African version of the Great Firewall. The Guardian reports that Nigeria's Attorney General has promised to prosecute those who violate the ban, but according to the Washington Post, many Nigerians are flouting the restrictions and tweeting anyway.
Suppression of historical memory: the case of Tiananmen Square.
June 4th marked the anniversary of 1989's massacre of protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, and China's government warned people against observing that anniversary. For example, the Hong Kong Free Press reports that authorities in the city have warned that those who attend a vigil to commemorate the event face up to five years in prison. Publicizing it will get you a year.
MIT Technology Review describes how the methods the Chinese government have used to suppress the history of the massacre are being felt in many corners of the Internet that are normally outside Beijing's reach. One such apparent effect, however, seems to have been an accident and a coincidence. Vice found that on June 4th Microsoft's Bing search engine was returning no results for searches looking for the iconic "tank man," a protester who faced down a column of armored vehicles in the Square. Microsoft said it was an accidental human error that it was working to correct. The BBC reported that within hours of the issue being detected, a search for "tank man" once again returned the results one would expect.
Tactical disinformation and weaponizing a chain of command.
An essay in the current issue of the US Naval Institute Proceedings is worth attention for its discussion of the ways in which deception and online influencer culture could be weaponized at the tactical level. The author develops a fictional scenario in which a US warship commanding officer has a praiseworthy tactical success, is justly praised for courage and resourcefulness, is publicly lionized by a hemi-, demi-, semi-uncomprehending general press, and then is taken down when a hostile foreign intelligence service fabricates and disseminates arrogant emails from the officer. He's removed from command, pending investigation, and the enemy scores a tactical victory through the US Navy's own chain of command. The fictitious rise-and-fall is similar to those that have become familiar with pop cultural celebrities, except that in this story the officer who becomes the victim neither sought fame nor became comfortable with it. The essay cites trust within a Service as a bulwark against this sort of attack, and asks whether organizations have devoted attention to developing and sustaining the sort of trust that would lend them resilience to a form of gray zone operation they can expect to face in the near future.
The Wuhan lab leak theory about COVID-19's origins isn't proven, but it's now officially respectable.
The Washington Post says so, as they kind of pick on their colleagues up at the New York Times. And sure, there's some hindsight operating here. The straight reporting about COVID's origins was never as monolithic and cocksure as media critics are now finding it. A number of reporters looked at difficult to interpret evidence and gave due weight to proper uncertainty. The monolithic cocksureness was mostly in the opinion journalism and political posturing that surrounded that reporting. As we noted last week, the editorialists, political operators, and op-ed pundits were the ones susceptible to the common ad hominem fallacy. The various rushes to judgment were amplified by that curious disinhibition that seems to afflict people when they tweet.
The G7 has also given official credibility to the lab leak theory. The Guardian, which says it's seen a leaked draft of a communique prepared for this week's G7 meetings, reports that the group of economically developed democracies (Canada, Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States) will call for the World Health Organization to reopen its investigation of the origins of the virus.