This is the first information war since the US developed the concept of information warfare back in the early 1990s. Since then the
term was watered down to become politically correct, into information operations. Someone asked me today what the difference was between this and the Cold War where the Soviets and the US lobbed propaganda back and forth in the hopes of somehow causing a popular uprising, affecting some random decision or hopefully a leader.
First, notice I used the term propaganda. Both the Soviet Union and the US produced massive amounts of propaganda to support their point of view. I grew up in the 60s and 70s and when I worked in China and Russia only a few years ago, I realized my concept of both countries had been severely skewed by this information.
Fast forward to today and I deal with VOA, RFE/RL, RFA and other international news outlets. I can honestly say, in my expert opinion, that the news they broadcast is as close to the truth as I have ever seen and is definitely not propaganda. One of the first targets of pro-Russian commenters was to label VOA and others as propaganda purveyors and as CIA fronts. This is interesting because that is definitely not the case.
In the early 1990s the Cold War ended and a concept named Command and Control Warfare popped up, quickly replaced by Information Warfare and finally the worst plain vanilla expression in the world: Information Operations. Quickly, Information Operations became overwhelmed with warfare in cyberspace. State sponsored hackers popped up and the news focused on hackers. Hackers became the new cool kids. Then, finally, the term “Information Warfare” was dropped from the lexicon of official terms. Life, somehow, has a way of reminding us that just dropping a term does not stop it from being correct. Senior staffers in the Information Operations office in the Pentagon use Information Warfare as if it is right, and who am I to argue? Dr. Dan Kuehl, formerly the titular leader of Information Operations at National Defense University for years argued that Information Warfare was and is the proper term. He’s right and always has been.
Which brings us to today and the difference between what we are seeing today and saw yesterday. There are two huge pieces missing from this little conflict: the use of massive cyber attacks and conventional warfare but we see massive and the highly effective use of information against leaders as well as the population.
Yes, this is just like the Cold War. For the past 25 years, however, volleys of electrons, cyber spitballs, were flung back and forth between potential enemies. Probing, pinging, attempts to overwhelm (DDOS), silly website defacements – all efforts deemed short of war. Cries of “Digital Pearl Harbor” rang out and the US has spent billions of dollars and devoted thousands of their best and brightest to this new field of cyberwarfare. People have made fortunes and careers have been established based solely on one concept. Cyberwarfare was forever inextricably linked to warfare. Cyber became the end game, information and influence were overlooked. Here, the Russians pulled up to a communications bunker and simply unhooked Crimea from the rest of the world and ‘game over’. Cyber is not a player. Sure, there are website defacements and DDOS attacks but twitter and social media have overcome those minor inconveniences. Yes, it’s still cyber, but in this case, is only being used for communications and the information and influence is the dominant effect.
Not since the 1980s have we seen information, misinformation, disinformation and outright lies flung back and forth between Russia and the rest of the world. Propaganda is being churned up like chum in a global fishing tournament. We are seeing symbology unlike any other time, pointed directly at world leaders. Putin bare-chested and doing traditionally manly things. Obama wearing mom jeans and riding a silly bicycle contrasted against the Russian bear. Russian stories of them needing to protect ethnic Russians. Stories of Russian tradition. Masked soldiers controlling Crimea. From the West we hear of international laws being broken, of banks being closed down, of a rapidly spiraling Russian economy. We see videos done by a young female leader of an uprising – instantly viewed around the world by millions. Within hours we see a Russian response. We see massive amounts of reportedly paid commentors on social media.
No more paper posters. No more pamphlets. No more Life magazine. No more waiting for Walter Cronkite to tell us what to think. No more old white men in smokey rooms planning out what we see.
This is the first information war where the repercussions are immediately felt, almost globally. The instantaneous effects have necessitated new tactics, planning and strategies by our world leaders. This is an entirely new information war where everybody has the potential of being on the front line and being a victim as well as a soldier.