Four Ways to Counter Russia’s Social-Media Warfare

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the fall of 2011, when I was NATO'S top military commander, we were prosecuting a vigorous air campaign against the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, called Operation Unified Protector. Earlier that year Qaddafi had threatened to attack noncombatant civilians in Libya, so the U.N. Security Council authorized NATO to conduct the strikes while also placing an arms embargo on the nation. We eventually launched more than 25,000 air sorties in a remarkably successful tactical campaign, although a lack of follow-up action led to continued strategic challenges and general instability across the nation.

In late October, I chose to announce the end of hostilities on Twitter. As I did so, it struck me that this was the first time social media had been used to announce the end of a major conflict. I felt it was a sensible use of worldwide networks -- providing immediate global awareness and ensuring that the information was passed simultaneously to friends, foes and noncombatants alike. I also thought it was a harbinger of good: a tactical system used with appropriate purpose in a way that would have positive effect.

Flash forward to 2016. As we are discovering now through the diligent work of special counsel Robert Mueller, those same social networks were used by Russia to target the U.S. elections, seeking to influence the outcome in favor of the Kremlin’s choice, Donald Trump. Largely through Facebook and Twitter, Russia was able to build an army of bots, push messages of division, create false narratives and aggressively attack U.S. democracy. It was a bold move  directed by Vladimir Putin, in effect turning social media into a significant weapon of war. And it continues -- top U.S. intelligence professionals announced at a hastily arranged White House press conference last week that “the lights are blinking red.”

If, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics “by other means,” today’s use of the social networks makes possible a new way to influence politics, and thus gain advantage in conflict between states. This creates a new, dangerous face of war against which we must be prepared to respond. What are the implications for the U.S.? Are we prepared to operate in this grey zone of conflict?

First, Americans should recognize that the long history of warfare is largely about the balance between offensive and defensive capabilities. England's offensive long-range archers were able to overcome the defensive armor of French knights at the Battle of Cressy in 1346, for example. Aircraft operating from the decks of carriers were able to offensively overcome the heavy armor plating of battleships in World War II. Defensive ballistic missile air-defense systems are being used to defend cities from offensive long-range attacks today in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Offense and defense continually trade places as technology and tactics shift.

What is so striking about the use of social networks in conflict is that they have rapidly transitioned from providing advantage to rebellions and insurgents -- as in the dramatic case of the Arab Spring or the European “color revolutions,” where they were used extensively to organize mass protests -- to aiding authoritarian regimes. From Syria to Iran to North Korea, repressive states are applying them offensively to attack enemies both internally and internationally. And Russia’s employing them against the U.S. is the most dramatic example of it unfolding between superpowers.

Using social networks is fundamentally different than cyberwarfare, which uses the internet and streams of code to attack and disrupt networks engaged in logistics, transportation, finance, health care, command-and-control and other key infrastructure. That is certainly another relatively new and distinctive face of battle. But the use of social networks in conflict is far less understood and the U.S. has struggled to defend itself. We must react. Peter Singer, a noted futurist and military analyst, writes convincingly about this phenomenon in his forthcoming book, “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.”  (He is also the co-author of the novel "Ghost Fleet," which offers a terrifyingly realistic vision of a war between the U.S. and China.)

Singer and others have made the case that the U.S. has much work to do in order to operate in these shadow zones of the social networks. I would start with four concrete steps.

First, we need much better public-private cooperation. Facebook, Twitter and the other major social networks should have government liaisons assigned from the National Security Agency, FBI and Department of Homeland Security to assist them in monitoring and responding to such attacks.

Second, we need to develop better technical defenses that can detect bots and propaganda and the work of fake-news mills in real time and stifle them. These technologies must be jointly created by both government and private sector actors. Congress can help by driving legislation that encourages this. Such laws should provide both incentives for cooperation (perhaps through tax credits) and sanctions (fines for instances of flagrant non-enforcement).

Third, we need to be more adept at revealing the nature and extent of such attacks when they occur and publicizing them. We should use international organizations (the Security Council, NATO, the Organization of American States, etc.) to shine a spotlight on the use of the networks offensively to shame the abusers. Joint statements from an alliance or regional organization carry much more weight than any single nation's complaints.

Fourth, we need to be willing to use more aggressive and potentially public responses when we are attacked. General Paul Nakasone, who heads both the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, said recently that he had "guidance" from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on responding to foreign meddling. But it's unclear what that guidance was, or what sort of retaliation has already occurred beyond the indictments of some of the Russian operatives (none of whom are likely to be turned over to the U.S. justice system).

The U.S. should be considering using the social networks in a proportional way against Russia if it does not cease and desist -- perhaps by revealing corruption and overseas wealth held by senior Russian leaders.  This has been done to an extent, but needs to be deepened to include Putin specifically. It should also be done creatively on social networks with evocative images of villas, yachts and Italian suits.

Clearly, the use of the social networks will play a role for both good and ill in the conduct of politics and, when politics become strained, will be a tool with which nations will continue the conflict in this shadow zone. Tweeting the end of a war as I did blithely in 2011, or watching happily while democracy triumphed in Ukraine in 2005, are all well and good; but Americans need to understand and be ready to respond more efficiently and forcefully when the power of the social networks is turned against the U.S. The lights are blinking red indeed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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