Class 10. Disinformation as an Asymmetrical Threat
An overview of the vulnerabilities in our democratic system which weaker adversaries can exploit to their benefit.
I often refer to asymmetries in different contexts to highlight how malign actors can exploit institutional norms and democratic processes to promote disinformation. For example, I discussed how the traditional silence of the Justice Department with regard to ongoing investigations — which exists both to protect the integrity of the criminal process and the rights of the accused — created an information asymmetry that was exploited by Bill Barr to promote a false narrative that Special Counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion ahead of the report being released. (Barr was employing a Russian information warfare technique called “reflexive control” which we’ll be exploring in a few weeks.) Last week, I discussed how asymmetries in the media ecosystems on the left and right allowed Fox News to promote, and profit from, the Big Lie that the 2020 election was “rigged.”
Today I want to talk about disinformation more generally as an asymmetrical threat, and why understanding it as such is important in terms of formulating effective counter-responses. In general, asymmetrical threats refer to tactics utilized by a weaker adversary against a stronger one. It’s also useful to think of it as a tactic in the poor man’s toolbox. This prescient RAND study from 1999 warned that “[a]dversaries are more likely to use asymmetric threats against the United States in the future than they have been in the past. While nations normally emulate successful strategies, the U.S. strategy is too expensive. Instead, adversaries must strive to overcome biases against innovation and search for affordable, viable asymmetric alternatives.” This is especially true of Russia, which cannot compete with the U.S. militarily, economically, or technologically, but also state actors like Iran, North Korea, and China.
The RAND study, which was focused on military strategy, went on to suggest that “attacks that cause massive destruction in the United States” were “not very likely…though none can be completely ruled out.” Of course, the 9/11 attack two years later changed that calculus completely. In fact, since 9/11, discussion of asymmetrical threats often focused on analyzing how the United States can respond to non-state actors who engage in international terrorism. But much of that same analysis can be applied to information warfare as well, including in a nonmilitary context. The RAND study notes the following about asymmetric strategies:
Asymmetric strategies attack vulnerabilities not appreciated by the target or capitalize on limited preparation against the threat
1) They rely primarily on concepts of operations fundamentally different from those of the target and/or from those of recent history—often employing different weapons—and/or
2) Can serve political or strategic objectives substantively different from those the target pursues
The study goes on to note that the U.S. is likely to be unprepared for asymmetric threats due to a cognitive bias towards “mirror imaging” an adversary — assuming that an adversary views the conflict in the same way as we do.
To that end, I want to look at the United States’ strengths — or what we typically consider to be strengths — from the perspective of a weaker adversary. We’ve already touched on some of this in discussing the strengths of the Soviet Union’s active measures operations compared to modern Russia; this analysis just flips the perspective slightly to look at some of those aspects with a direct comparison to the U.S. This discussion will set the stage for our talk in a couple of weeks with Seth Jones, author of Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare, as well as our final lessons on reflexive control and hybrid warfare before we turn to the 2016 and 2020 elections. [Speaking of guest speakers, Russian Media Monitor Julia Davis will be joining us in April to give us a window into Russian state TV — so stay tuned!] For now, let’s turn to the asymmetries.
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