Information operations · Information Warfare

The Kavanaugh Hearing Information War


Judge Brett Kavanaugh. SALWAN GEORGES/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES

As much as I hate discussing politics on this blog, this article is a good examination of various techniques used by trolls, propagandists, and concerned citizens. 

The article does not discuss is the role of Russian trolls in this discussion. If you check out the Hamilton 68 dashboard, the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and investigation figures prominently in the displays. Russian trolls are pushing the issues often. Most interesting to me is they appear to be exclusively pushing a conservative agenda, whereas in 2016 Russian trolls pushed extremist issues from all perspectives. 

The article also does not discuss various argumentative techniques used by all sides. The #MeToo movement and Democrats use strongly emotional issues strengthened with inarguable feelings and various feminist arguments.  The conservatives and Republicans argue Rule of Law and Innocent until Proven Guilty. 

I have heartburn about the title of this article, however. There have been a few articles floated recently which argue for and against awarding the status of “war veteran” to Social Justice Warriors.  I consider the idea reprehensible and absolutely out of line. I hope these authors do not push that line of thinking.

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HOW THE KAVANAUGH INFORMATION WAR MIRRORS REAL WARZONES

AS THE CONTROVERSY surrounding the Supreme Court confirmation for Judge Brett Kavanaugh escalates, the online conversation around it has started to feel less like a debate and more like a war. That’s because it is one.

WIRED OPINION

P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking are the authors of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, out Oct 2, 2018.

It’s been more than three decades since the alleged sexual assaults. But in making their case, defenders of both Kavanaugh and Ford have embraced many of the same information warfare tactics favored by terrorist propagandists and foreign militaries, including those infamous Russian trolls. The aim, in this case, is not collusion. Rather, these are the new and necessary means to “win” on the web. If cyberwar is the hacking of networks, these are the tools of what we call the “LikeWar,” the hacking of people. As these methods merge across flame wars and real wars, there’s no escaping them.

One way the sheer scale of online information has transformed discourse is through what is known as OSINT, open-source intelligence. By mobilizing networks in the hunt for digital clues, formerly shrouded secrets can be pieced together. In war, examples have ranged from revealing details of foreign weapons to documenting war crimes to unmasking assassins. Now those same techniques are being deployed in an attempt to answer the mysteries of the Kavanaugh debate. ProPublica, for instance, is running a crowdsourced investigation of the nominee’s $200,000 baseball ticket debt, trying to identify his network of potential connections by cataloging who sat with him.

At the other end of the spectrum was the effort by Kavanaugh defender Ed Whelan, assisted by CRC, a public relations firm previously known for its role in the “Swiftboat” smears of John Kerry in the 2004 election. Drawing on Facebook comments, Google Maps, and even home layouts from Zillow, Whelan posted a Twitter screed that claimed to “prove” that Ford had actually been assaulted by a Kavanaugh look-alike. Instead, the theory was quickly picked apart by a countering online crowd.

The effort to introduce a doppelganger aligned with another key method used in LikeWars around the world: muddying the debate by throwing out alternative theories. Russia has long been the master of this disinformation tactic. After its 2014 shootdown of the MH-17 airliner over Ukraine, for instance, Russia spread over a dozen different theories of what had really happened. Many were contradictory and debunked previous claims. But the goal wasn’t to find the truth—it was to obscure it behind a smokescreen of lies.

“The most momentous battle in the Kavanaugh saga has been the one fought with keywords and hashtags, as millions of Americans broadcast their thoughts in real time.”

Similarly, the Kavanaugh debate has given rise to false claims and ridiculous photoshopped images, often spread under fake identities. There have been debunked rumors that Kavanaugh had ruled against Ford’s parents in a house foreclosure and that Ford’s brother was part of the Russia investigation. There was even a flurry of unsubstantiated sexual assault charges leveled against Kavanaugh in the hours before the hearing. His supporters were outraged; those opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination speculated that they were placed so that his defenders could point to the media’s unreliability and cast doubt on Ford’s credibility.

Not even history itself is safe—at least the online version of it, which we increasingly depend on. When Kavanaugh testified that Devil’s Triangle, as mentioned on his high school yearbook page, was a drinking game, there was no online evidence to back up his claim. (Other sources asserted it was a known sexual term.) So an anonymous person immediately updated Wikipedia to support Kavanaugh’s definition. It was a near perfect parallel to how Russian operatives repeatedly edited the Wikipedia entry for “MH17” in the hours after the airliner was shot down to try to provide an alternative history.

Yet the most momentous battle in the Kavanaugh saga has been the one fought with keywords and hashtags, as millions of Americans broadcast their thoughts in real time. Ford was either a brave victim or the pawn of a political hit job; Kavanaugh was either a privileged, angry abuser or a noble man who had become the real victim. Even those who steered clear of social media were nonetheless affected, as online tensions shaped the tone and tenor of every news broadcast in the country. (How could it not? An estimated 96 percent of journalists use Twitter for their reporting).

Indeed, the arguments came with such venom and fury that they seemed most reminiscent of the “Twitter Wars” between Israel and Palestine. Supporters engaged in a ceaseless tug-of-war for global opinion online, even as rockets fell on Israeli cities and Palestinian children were killed by the dozens.

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