The Cyber Underground – Resistance to Active Measures and Propaganda: “The Disruptors” - Motto: “Think For Yourself”
David S. Maxwell
The open societies of the US and free and democratic nations are being subverted by active measures and propaganda to undermine political processes and sow cultural and political divisions to allow closed societies of revisionist and revolutionary powers to dominate in international affairs. The way to counter this effort is through a grass roots resistance movement that consists of an educated, activist, energetic, and empowered youth who seek to be part of something larger than themselves and validate their self-worth as disruptors of the status quo. However, the closed societies are challenging their ability to disrupt because active measures and propaganda have taken away their initiative. A new grass roots movement, a cyber underground, organized around special operations principles can create a nationwide and global network that will seek out, identify, understand, and expose active measures and propaganda from closed societies in order to protect free and open societies. In short our nation wide youth of disruptors will channel their abilities to beat the revisionist and revolutionary disruptors. The exposure of adversary active measures and propaganda will inoculate the population against their effects and render their efforts ineffective and useless. This movement will help to restore and sustain what George Kennan termed the “health and vigor of our own society” that is the vital antidote to the subversive threats that we face.
The values and political systems of open democratic societies are facing a world wide campaign of subversion by powers that seek to undermine democracies in order to strengthen their power in their region and throughout the world. This subversive campaign requires a global asymmetric response that cannot be organized by governments. It requires a grass roots resistance to conduct a counter cyber subversion campaign. An organizing principle may be found in both the modern concept of crowd sourcing and the application of special operations principles.
US Definition of Resistance: An organized effort by some portion of the civil population of a country to resist the legally established government or an occupying power and to disrupt civil order and stability. (US Joint Pub 3-05)
Adapted Definition of Resistance: An organized effort by some portion of the civil population to defend against the active measures and propaganda of an outside power that is seeking to disrupt civil society and create disorder and undermine the legitimacy of the constituted government and political system.
Subversion, active measures, and propaganda are key elements of modern unconventional warfare campaigns and revisionist and revolutionary powers are conducting unconventional warfare campaigns. Americans and the people of like-minded modern nation state powers need to resist the campaigns and strategies of those who are attacking freedom and democracy and the international nation state system that is required for freedom and democracy to flourish.
Congress recognized this threat in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act in Section 1097 which directed the Department of Defense in coordination with other government agencies to develop a counter unconventional warfare strategy. While Congress called for a whole of government approach that is the modern framework for national security in the 21st Century, what is really necessary is a whole of society approach and engagement through, with, and by the people. The US government, and certainly not DOD, cannot defend America from these threats. It requires the people.
Appreciate the Context
There is competition among three world powers:
-Revisionist Powers who attack the international system to change it to its advantage (e.g., Russia, China, Iran).
- Revolutionary Powers who attack the international system to destroy and replace it with their own (e.g., AQ, ISIS, et al).
Modern Nation State Powers who seek to protect the international nation state system to make it work for all states (the US and the rest).
However, there is fourth largely untapped and unrecognized power: An educated, activist, energetic youth who seek to be part of something larger than themselves that will validate their self-worth. A common trait among this power is the desire to be disruptors – to use emerging and cutting edge technologies, develop new concepts, innovate in new ways, and challenge the status quo. However, they do not realize that their ability to be disruptors is threatened by the active measures and propaganda of the revisionist and revolutionary powers that seek to disrupt open societies in ways that will cause this fourth power to cease to be disruptors.
Revolutionary and revisionist powers are generally characterized as closed societies and modern nation state powers are generally characterized as open societies. Closed societies are very effective at exploiting, attacking, and subverting open societies.
While modern nation state powers take a Clausewitzian view in which war is politics by other means our adversaries view politics as war by other means. This seemingly subtle difference is quite profound because our adversaries are conducting their own unique forms of political warfare as described by George Kennan in 1948:
Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz's doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (as ERP--the Marshall Plan), and "white" propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of "friendly" foreign elements, "black" psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.
Kennan observed that the “health and vigor of our own society” is a vital antidote to Soviet active measures and this remains relevant today. The health and vigor is ideally achieved through civic education, an understanding of and belief in American ideals and principles, and through such education citizens can recognize that the American political system is under attack through active measures and propaganda. From Kennan’s classified "Long Telegram:"
Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meets. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit--Moscow cannot help profiting by them in its foreign policies.
Replace “world communism” and “Moscow” with “ideologies of revisionist and revolutionary powers” and Kennan’s words have continued relevance today.
Understand the Problem
Our adversaries are conducting political warfare to subvert the United States and open democratic societies. They are exploiting both openness and the Internet to divide societies, undermine trust in government and delegitimize electoral processes. The main tools of their form of political warfare are active measures and propaganda.
Civic education alone is insufficient to motivate people to seek, understand, and expose adversary active measures and propaganda. What is necessary is an organization that allows citizens to network, share information and ideas, and conduct collective action to defend American ideals and our political system from subversion by our adversaries.
American youth have become adept at various methods of crowd sourcing for a wide variety issues. They belong to vast social networks and single tweets and social media posts can reach thousands and even more when they go viral. In addition, the major emphasis on the employment of special operations since 9-11 and the public descriptions of their operations may motivate young people to want to belong to a virtual special operations capability based on the establishment of an underground and auxiliary force in cyber space to expose adversary subversive activities. The combination of a cyber savvy youth with an attraction to special operations can be a national defense force multiplier.
Develop an Approach
We talk about counter messaging and other tactics but these are insufficient. Employing only technical means to counter bots and trolls is insufficient. Given today's networked world and crowd sourcing solutions to myriad problems, combined with the mythology of special operations and the romanticism of guerrilla warriors which is attractive to young people, we should establish and recruit a Cyber Underground. We should recruit American civilians and like minded civilians from friends, partners, and allied countries to actively seek out Russian (or Iranian, Chinese, ISIS, AQ, north Korean, etc) active measures and expose them to minimize their influence. We should have a corps of civilian virtual cyber guerrilla warriors (e.g., a cyber resistance movement to counter active measures and propaganda) who would work to expose cyber influence operations and develop a global network to expose every Russian (or other actor) attempt at active measures. This would have the benefit of educating the general population about Russian strategies (and those of revisionist and revolutionary powers) who seek to subvert the US and our friends, partners, and allies by exploiting the vulnerabilities of open societies. It would contribute to defending against attacks of our electoral system through influence means. In effect we can crowd source a cyber influence defense network. We will provide online courses to train and educate members of the network on Russian active measures and propaganda so they can identify tactics, techniques, and procedures and learn best practices for reporting and exposing those active measures. As the Cyber Underground aggressively works to expose active measures and propaganda to the general public such adversary influence operations will lose legitimacy and no longer effectively influence friendly populations.
A Grass Roots Movement
A small cadre of personnel (twenty-something/millennial) organized along the lines of virtual special forces teams with sufficient resources will design a recruiting, organization, training, and employment campaign for the Cyber Underground. They will design a campaign that uses all current and emerging social media platforms (and will continue to evolve and adapt with new platforms). A civic minded Non-governmental organization could be the best platform for launching such a grass roots movement.
This concept is different from the "computational propaganda” methods, the use of algorithms to counter propaganda, or using technical means to find bots and trolls and block their access and activities. While these can have value it is important to focus on exposing information, strategy, and tactics.
The key is legitimacy and a level trust that can only come from trusting your fellow humans. The computational propaganda approach could be useful in identifying propaganda but we need lots and lots of millennials calling out our adversaries for their active measures and propaganda and reminding all Americans that a key American trait is to “think for yourself” and not allow propaganda to influence our decision making. We need to “generate the buzz” about what revisionist and revolutionary powers are trying to do to us. We need milliennials in chat rooms and across the current and future social media platforms generating discussion and pointing out the strategy and tactics of our adversaries. With a little subtle civic education tossed in we might improve civic mindedness and the desire to defend our system and way of life against the subversion we are experiencing. We want to reach a state where our millennial disruptors will disrupt the subversive disruptors.
Anonymous and its activities might be a useful analogy for this concept. However this would have to be operate much different. The key principle is transparency and openness. We need to create a virtual organization to which people want to belong. Also we want people to be known in order to have legitimacy and build trust in the message (and to further expand the network - "Johnny is doing cool work on the Internet, I want to do it to." I think Anonymous and computational propaganda are limited in terms of legitimacy because of a lack of transparency and lesser levels of trust. We need a millennial within his social media networks trying to influence its members to "think for themselves" when reading propaganda. By exposing it and explaining it people can be inoculated against it.
This should be an extra-governmental effort because if the government does this there will be significant antibodies and resistance (and a natural lack of trust). I think the government can call out the need for countering active measures and propaganda and recognize that in a democracy it is the people that have to protect the system from subversion. We cannot have any draconian measures imposed to control information - we must fight for an open society with a free and open flow of information and only the people can ensure that occurs by policing our information domain and targeting adversarial active measures and propaganda.
The US and other modern nation state powers face a real and significant threat from revisionist and revolutionary powers. They are conducting modern unconventional warfare using active measures and propaganda to subvert our way of life and political processes. The government alone is insufficient to defend against these threats. It takes a whole of society approach and the main effort in such an approach should be the fourth global power: An educated, activist, energetic youth who seek to be part of something larger than themselves that will validate their self-worth. It is our youth, properly self-motivated and mobilized, acting as the disruptors they long to be who can effectively counter subversion of our society and lead the people to the antidote which Kennan called the “health and vigor of our own society.” Our youth can form a resistance movement in the cyber realm, identify and expose our adversaries’ strategies and tactics, inform others, and influence current and future generations to think for themselves. The question is what non-governmental organization and who among our youth are willing to pick up the mantle for the defense of America, our democracy, and our way of life? Or are we going to allow ourselves to submit to the subversion of the revisionist and revolutionary powers?
David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel.