“It was confirmation bias which destroyed our civilisation, mostly”
‘Everyone understood, if they were honest, that it was not our fault we were left with no sky. On the contrary, it was a great honor for us, in a way. The marshals of the four coalitions chose our sky for their decisive battle because the sky over our village was the best in the world: calm and cloudless.
[…] This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.’
‘Natan Dubovitsky’ ‘Without Sky’, Russian Pioneer, No 46, Moscow
Media coverage is intensifying daily about the investigations by US Senate committees and special counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between Donald Trump and the Russian government. The FBI dawn raid on the house of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort came days after the revelation of Manafort’s magically vanishing debts to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Kremlin-linked Ukrainan oligarch Ivan Fursin. All of which suggests that some of the evidence which the US House Committee on intelligence, FBI and Mueller’s Grand Jury have turned up will be in the public domain, soon.
It’s unclear how much of this disclosure, ahead of any prosecutions, will link Russia and the 45th US President to Nigel Farage and others who “won” the Brexit result in the UK’s 2016 referendum, and before Trump secured the Whitehouse. If there is strong evidence of these links, UK law-makers can’t ignore it. There may have to be a rethink of the entire basis of Brexit.
- Read part one: The war of all against all
In the previous part of this series of four articles, I made the case that while we wait for this evidence to be made more public, it’s worth examining how and why Russia, or other state-actors, could – in effect – declare war on the USA, UK and NATO countries without firing a shot.
The presumed aim of the Russian government-backed operation is to weaken the UK, USA and its allies and – ultimately – to cause the effective dissolution of NATO. If successful, it would be the mirror of what happened to the USSR in 1989, the collapse of a political order assumed “too big to fail”.
In the previous article I argued for a rethink of Brexit due to the strong possibility that it’s occurring because foreign powers including Russia have mounted operations to force the UK out of the EU by covert means. At the very least, it should prompt a pause in negotiations with the EU until a Parliamentary inquiry can review all the relevant evidence, with access to classified information and the candid opinion of academic experts, intelligence and military professionals.
Pending any evidence coming to light that hostile state-actors interfered in Brexit, my aim in these articles is to ask: how would they do it, and why would they do it?
In this second part, I begin to address the ‘how?’
The weaponisation of ‘fake news’, the rigging of elections, targeted data and other forms of propaganda are not new developments in statecraft, and have a history reaching back till at least the Cold War. Many of the theories connected to these covert activities, and the personalities who espoused them, are outlandish, and in some cases bizarre and more than a bit creepy. This makes this whole area of discussion seem as though it belong on ‘UK Column’, Alex Jones’s ‘Infowars’, David Icke’s web forum or similar bottomless sinkholes of conspiracy theories and male menopausal angst.
However, over at least the last sixty years or so, very serious players have put serious amounts of money into developing ways of waging war without there being any outward signs of an armed conflict.
To quote one such set of theories as described in an introduction to an internal US military discussion paper from the late 1970s on “mind wars” and Psychological Operations:
“You seize control of all of the means by which [a] government and populace process information to make up their minds, and you adjust it so that those minds are made up as you desire. Everyone is happy, no one gets hurt or killed, and nothing is destroyed.”
“If nothing’s destroyed what’s the problem?” The devil’s advocate may well ask. There needs to be democratic oversight and greater public understanding of this new, complex and highly contentious area of political conflict. The need for this oversight and discussion extends beyond the UK or NATO countries, even if they are the current focus of a ‘plot’.
Election violence in Kenya that seems to have left a dozen or so dead revisits 2007’s disputed elections, in which 1300 were killed. Kenya’s independent election commissioner Wafula Chebukati has confirmed ominously that an attempt to hack its voter database had failed.
In future, outcomes of elections and referenda that test public faith, and could potentially lead to civil disturbances, won’t be isolated to the USA, UK or Crimea. The state-actors involved won’t be isolated to Russia, either. The nexus of politics, networked digital communications, public opinion and violent unrest has been a prominent feature of communal violence in India for many years, where false claims spread on Facebook and WhatsApp have led to a number of large civil disturbances and many deaths. When Trump and his supporters decry ‘globalists’ they don’t mean Twitter. ‘Networked unrest’ is a troubling feature of globalisation which is here to stay, and is a challenge to all democracies and civic leaders internationally.
If these scenarios seem weird and like Science Fiction it’s because, in many cases, they were first thought about by Science Fiction writers. The maestro of SF about “fake” news and fake realities was Philip K Dick. The original movie and remake of ‘Total Recall’ are based on his short-story ‘We Can Dream It for You Wholesale’ about a man, bored with his life, who becomes trapped in a virtual reality. In his 1964 book ‘The Penultimate Truth’ (which owes a lot to E M Forster’s 1909 short story ‘The Machine Stops’), “ant tank” shelters housing most of humanity are pumped with fake news that World War III is going on above their heads. In fact, the survivors of the war live luxurious lives in palatial estates on the surface, maintained by former robot soldiers, while the mass of people toil in underground warrens, never seeing the sky.
One of the present-day Science Fiction maestros of fake news is also the author of the short story quoted above, ‘Natan Dubovitsky’, which it’s generally assumed is the pen name of Vladimir Putin’s advisor and close ally, Vladislav Surkov. Surkov’s wife is called Natalya Dubovitskaya (maybe she writes them?)
In one ‘Dubovitsky’ SF short story, ‘Without Sky’ (quoted at length above) the narrator describes a conflict between numerous opposing forces ranged over their village:
‘four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.’
The war of “all against all” is both a description of the phony war waged through 2016 and 2017 against Russia’s opponents through ‘fake news’ and computer hacking, but is also – along with the metaphor of a sky-less village – an image of “no future” that could almost be an aside from John Lydon in 1977.
On finishing his military service, Surkov spent three years training to be a theatre director at the Moscow Institute of Culture. In his 2016 essay ‘Is Vladislav Surkov an Artist?’ James Dixon observes that the ‘straight-A student, who wrote poetry, had hair like Pink Floyd and wore velvet trousers’ under Communism in the Seventies may have been influenced in his thinking in the late Nineties by Russian translations of the work of French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. In Lyotard’s 1979 book ‘The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’, he writes:
‘Knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to, be, a major – perhaps the major – stake in the worldwide competition for power. It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labour. A new field is opened for industrial and commercial strategies on the one hand, and political and military strategies on the other.’
J F Lyotard, 1984 ‘The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’ Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, p36.
Russia has a vast territory and nine time zones, but has the Gross Domestic Product of Italy. In 2017, it cut its defence spending by 25.5% (from RUB 3.8 trillion, or US $65.4 billion, to RUB 2.8 trillion.). The “non-linear” warfare of “all against all” is, above all else, the cheap option to establish Russia’s global dominance, and it’s working.
How, in 2017 with a depleted military, could Putin and his political allies rebuild an Empire which has ended, doing to NATO countries what they did to the USSR in 1989? How, in 1977, did three kids with three chords get on ‘Top of the Pops’? Vladislav Surkov’s ‘DIY’ approach to restoring Russian power by manipulating populist and fascist sentiments in an era of increasing atomisation of thought and of societies (what Irvine Welch tweeted recently is “the underlying craving for false simplicity” which “leads to shouty reductive binary choices & cheap dopamine hits on social media”) is the geopolitical equivalent of the ‘Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’.
“Cash for chaos,” the ‘Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren called it. Trump and Manafort’s former ally Roger Stone says of politics “it’s performance art. Sometimes, for its own sake.”
Following the March 2014 Crimean status referendum, a gerrymandered plebiscite by which Russia split Crimea from Ukraine to rejoin the Russian Federation, President Obama ordered a Specially Designated Nationals List of Russian officials bared from the USA. On hearing that he was one of the first eleven persons on the list, Surkov said of his banning, “the only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work.”
Parvenu artist-impresario ambitions, and pretentiousness, seem to be prerequisites of being a 21st Century Bond villain.
Putin’s propaganda strategy is strongly influenced by Surkov’s “non-linear” warfare concepts, and also by the ideas of Russian Armed Forces chief Valery Gerasimov as applied to “active measures” and “reflexive control“, the latter a legacy of Soviet strategising. Eerik-Niles Kross described “Gerasimov doctrine” in a Politico article last year:
‘Gerasimov argued, a year before the Russian occupation of Crimea.
“In a couple of months, even days, a well-functioning state can be turned into a theater of fierce armed conflict, can be made a victim of invasion from outside, or can drown in a net of chaos, humanitarian disaster and civil war,”
[…] The purpose of war today is not the physical destruction of the enemy, but the internal eroding of our readiness, will, and values.’
Kross here quotes from a long article by Gerasimov which was found and translated by Huffington Post correspondent Robert Coalson. It appeared in ‘Military-Industrial Kurier’ on 27th February 2013. For anyone seeking an insight into thinking in the Kremlin about waging 21st Century war, it’s worth reading the whole translation. Gerasimov writes:
‘In the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template.’
Of the ‘Arab Spring’, he writes:
‘Of course, it would be easiest of all to say that the events of the “Arab Spring” are not war and so there are no lessons for us — military men — to learn. But maybe the opposite is true — that precisely these events are typical of warfare in the 21st century.
In terms of the scale of the casualties and destruction — the catastrophic social, economic, and political consequences — such new-type conflicts are comparable with the consequences of any real war.
The very “rules of war” have changed. The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.
[…] All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces. The open use of forces — often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation — is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict.
[…] Asymmetrical actions have come into widespread use, enabling the nullification of an enemy’s advantages in armed conflict. Among such actions are the use of special operations forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state, as well as informational actions, devices, and means that are constantly being perfected.’
Back in 1986, “reflexive control” was described in a research report for the US Naval Graduate School as “a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision.” Even before the end of the Cold War, let alone the emergence of the internet, smart phones and social media, the Soviet military was developing ways to use an enemy’s tendencies towards confirmation bias to coerce them to take certain actions.
Rather than employing communications to try to convince large numbers of people to hold a view different from one which they hold anyway, “reflexive control” aims to use disinformation to provoke predictable responses from perceived rivals. By confirming existing biases in populations, and by amplifying antagonistic minority opinions – Islamophobia, transphobia, enmity towards foreigners generally – these sentiments can be made to work to Russia’s advantage.
A lesson of past propaganda is that state–backed campaigns can easily overreach. Gobbels was furious with Hitler when the fuehrer personally ordered an edit to one of the Third Reich’s films, cutting footage of rats crawling out of sewers and over garbage, to make a subtle point about Europe’s Jews in the snappily-titled ‘The Eternal Jew’.
The film bombed at the box-office. Even in the throes of Nazi-ism, German film-goers knew that Jews weren’t like rats. Gobbels, a big fan of Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, wasn’t keen on films with ‘political’ content. He wanted to make entertaining musicals and romantic historical epics. With the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, it could well be that Trump – who owes his Presidency and fame to reality TV – has “jumped the shark”, alienating the “I’m not a racist but-” demographic within his dwindling 34% support base, leaving him with subscribers to the Alex Jones bellicosity-cast ‘Info Wars’ and people who buy their blazing tiki torches at Target.
Trump took three days to criticise white supremacists (without calling them “terrorists”, which is what they are, people who use the threat of terror to enforce an otherwise unpopular outcome), before which Ivanka Trump had tweeted that “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis” and Trump’s pal Nigel Farage tweeted “Cannot believe we’re seeing Nazi salutes in 21st century America.” (Surprising those who were at school with him at the elite, fee-paying Dulwich College, who recall his admiration for fascist leader Oswald Mosely, and his of singing “gas ’em all, gas ’em all”, of Jews).
Whether these statements are coordinated, or instinctual and “memetic”, the effect is the same. As the documentary-maker Adam Curits has observed – in the year after Gerasimov’s ‘Military-Industrial Kurier’ article – but talking about Surkov’s propaganda.
‘Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused”.’
It’s entirely possible that Farage and Ivanka were being sincere, but the timing of the statements made it possible for right-wing ideologue Richard Spencer to say:
“Did he say ‘white nationalist?’ ‘Racist’ means an irrational hatred of people. I don’t think he meant any of us.'”
And “Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”
[Which one is it, Richard, was the President talking “kumbaya nonsense” or was he non-ironically condemning your hate group?]
You can’t punch fog. The fog of lies and bullshit surrounds and envelops you, and in a sense reaches inside you too, causing you to question your grasp of reality. Being in the audience for official information and Public Relations emanating from the UK and USA governments is akin to being ‘gas-lit’ by an abusive spouse, but on an extravagantly grand scale. “Russia’s hybrid war seeks to colonise the souls of its foes,” the poet and literary translator Steve Komarnyckyj told the journalist J J Patrick.
Hearing all of this confusing messaging may keep some Nazi shit-heads happy, but most people still don’t want to hang out with Nazi shit-heads, even if Nazi shit-heads have been on an atypical winning streak lately. Any more than German film-goers in World War Two wanted to be inundated by state-sponsored moving images schooling them on how much Europe’s Jews were like plague rats. What this kind of propaganda from the Forties has in common with fascist state propaganda now is that it’s not only evil, and lies, it’s also nonsense and hardly anyone is buying it.
The fascists who marched through Charlottesville look like dorks who took their WWII LARPing a little too seriously, because they are. And not the cool, late-night blogging about Voltron kind of LARPing dorks, either. The mouth-breathing, women-and-minorities-hating, alienated gamergater kind of dorks.
Trump’s message – that maybe “white nationalism” is cool after all – is aimed at this shrinking audience of nobodies, while a growing majority see through it for the bullshit it is. So it doesn’t matter whether Farage is tweeting from a script written by Surkov himself, or is simply doing what racist shit-heads do unprompted. As the slow-motion train wreck of Brexit piles up, Farage will look for people to blame. Not all “internal opposition” (to invoke Gerasimov’s article) needs hand-holding.
If and when the majority of people in the UK wake up to the fact that they’re victims of a spectacular con-trick, what happens? Writing of the 2014 Crimean crisis, Maria Snegovaya of the Institute for the Study Of War wrote:
‘Moscow may be reaching a point of diminishing returns in continuing a strategy that relies in part on its unexpectedness in Ukraine. Yet the same doctrine of reflexive control has succeeded in surprising the West in Syria.
The West must thus awaken itself to this strategy and to adaptations of it.’
Once the electorates of the UK and USA wake up to this con, the winning-streak of Russia and its temporary allies, friends and fellow travellers will come crashing to an end.
Who would have thought three years ago that Moscow would hit the jackpot by backing goofy activities like the California secession movement, or Russia Today livestreaming the annual Million Mask march? (In which London’s self-styled anarchist chaos magicians process, wearing ‘V for Vendetta’ masks – sans leaders, demands or a point – the short distance from the Twitter and Google HQs, where they work, to Trafalgar Square).
Putin has hit the jackpot, though, through a perfect storm comprised of his destruction of Russia’s oligarchs and replacement with his own allies; the popular disenfranchisement in NATO countries with no significant industrial base in the aftermath of the 2007-08 banking crisis; the orchestrated and ongoing suppression of swathes of minority voters in the US and other democracies; dodgy referenda; the demise of serious commercial journalism and the rise of ‘social media’ and ‘citizen journalism’.
It’s as though the old Soviet doctrines of “active measures” and “reflexive control” had been waiting, like ancient viruses, for the permafrost to thaw due to climate change. In the short time since Russia’s strategic victory in Crimea, conspiracy theories, untruths and half-truths has spread memetically, like a pandemic plague. One of Philip K Dick’s planetary farmers has this problem in his 1965 novel ‘The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch’:
‘Insecticides from Earth simply had not done the job, here; the native pests thrived. They had been waiting ten thousand years, biding their time, for someone to appear and make an attempt to raise crops.’
Once the ‘Express’ and ‘Daily Mail’ – the dormant micro-organisms of prejudice in the cultural grout of Britain – got hold of Facebook and Twitter, which at the time of the ‘Arab Spring’ were supposed to be a “new kind of Democracy” (according to Tony Blair), Putin’s propaganda plan of the war of “all against all” went into overdrive.
However, hiding in plain sight by not even bothering to hide means that you will, in not much time at all, be found out.
- Read part three: A brief history of “Mind Wars”