Today, I spoke with Dr Peter Warren Singer, who is a Strategist at New America, a Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and Founder & Managing Partner at Useful Fiction LLC. He is a New York Times Bestselling author with a multitude of accolades to his name.
His non-fiction books include ‘Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry’; ‘Children at War’; ‘Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century’; ‘Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know’ and most recently, ‘LikeWar: the Weaponization of Social Media’, which is the book we talked about today.
Peter is also the co-author of a new type of novel, using the format of a technothriller to communicate non-fiction research. ‘Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War’ was both a top summer read and led to briefings everywhere from the White House to the Pentagon. His latest is ‘Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution’ and has been described by the creator of Lost and Watchmen as “A visionary new form of storytelling—a rollercoaster ride of science fiction blended with science fact,” and by the head of US Army Cyber Command as “I loved Burn-In so much that I’ve already read it twice.”
Some of the topics we covered are:
- How the concept of #LikeWar was born
- The individual vs social media
- The power of storytelling in communication
- The role of social media in the invasion of Ukraine
- Social media – shifting the Who, the When, and the Where
- Ukrainian application of best practices
- Disconnectedness of Russian narrative
- Justness of the Ukrainian cause
- ‘Democratisation’ of war
- The malleability of the ‘truth’
- Lessors learnt from Ukraine’s
During the chat, I referred to an article Peter recently published with Politico. You can access it here.
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Peter W. Singer – On Ukrainian Information Warfare, Social Media Dominance And The Power Of Narrative
My guest is Dr. Peter Warren Singer. He is a strategist at New America, a Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and a Founder and Managing Partner at Useful Fiction. A New York Times best-selling author, Peter has been described in the Wall Street Journal as the premier futurist in the national security environment.
He has been named by the Smithsonian as one of the US 100 Leading Innovators, and by Defence News as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Defence Issues. He has been added by Foreign Policy to their top 100 Global Thinkers lists, and has been made an official Mad Scientist for the US Army Training and Doctrine Command.
No author, living or dead, has more books on a professional US military reading list. His non-fiction books include Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, Children at War, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know®, and LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, which explores how this relatively new technology has changed war and politics.
He’s also the co-author of a new type of novel using the format of a techno-thriller to communicate non-fiction research. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War was both a top summer read and led to briefings everywhere from the White House to the Pentagon. His latest is Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution. It has been described by the creator of Lost and Watchmen as a visionary new form of storytelling and a roller-coaster ride of science fiction blended with science fact. Also, by the head of the US Army Cyber Command, “I love Burn-In so much that I have already read it twice.”
Peter joins me to discuss the impact of technology and social media in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Given his background, I don’t think I could have found a better guest to explore this fascinating subject. Peter, thank you very much for joining me on The Voices of War.
Thank you very much in turn for having me.
You have written on so many different topics, whether it be private military, child soldiers, technology in war, the role of social media, as well as imagining future wars. The Wall Street Journal calls you a futurist. New America calls you a strategist. You are also a professor and a consultant. That’s a lot of hats you wear. How do you describe what you do?
When people ask my poor children what their dad does, they have to give a long answer as well. I wear two hats. I have my non-profit analysis hat where I do research and consulting on public policy issues, particularly related to technology and security. I have two homes for that, New America, which is a non-profit think tank based in Washington, DC. I also teach online classes at Arizona State University in cybersecurity.
I have my other hat, which is the for-profit hat. I have written books and then founded a business called Useful Fiction that works with organisations to help them tell their story better. Primarily, it has been organisations in the policy field. We have worked with the US, Canadian, British, as well as Australian military since we’re helping them to transform white papers, strategy papers, and the kind of things that people don’t like to read. How can we turn them into narratives that both explain the content and that people are also more likely to engage with?
Your book, LikeWar, has been an international best-seller. It is one of those where you brought some deep and interesting research into a narrative form that people can connect to. It’s very personalised because we all live on social media nowadays. Before we delve into the Ukraine crisis, what does LikeWar mean, the title itself? Why is that title so timely and important?
If you think of the idea of cyber war, which we have all grown a bit comfortable with talking about over the last decade-plus. It’s the idea of hacking networks, but the cyber war has an evil twin. We called that Like War, and it’s the idea of not hacking the network, but hacking the people on social networks by driving ideas viral through their likes and shares, but also sometimes lies.
We see this play out in episodes that range from the rise of ISIS to the rise of Donald Trump. It can have positive effects. We think of all sorts of activist movements. It’s used in marketing. It’s used by celebrities. A young researcher named Emerson Brooking and I started on that project in 2013. We started out trying to understand how social media was being used in war zones.
If you go back in time, back then, social media was thought of as something that didn’t matter much. It was light, airy, and jokes. If it mattered, it was only for the good. Democratising, as the New York Times described it, or you think about the Arab Spring. We are like, “How is it being used in war zones?” We started out looking at that, and then we very quickly realised that something bigger was going on. It wasn’t just being used by groups in war. It was affecting everything from terrorism if you think about the rise of ISIS, but it was reaching out beyond the war zones.
ISIS was using it to recruit people to come to Syria and Iraq, but it was also using it to inspire acts of terrorism everywhere, from Paris to Texas. It had an overlap with other bad things like crime. We saw drug cartels and street gangs using it, but then we also saw an overlap with politics. You were looking at Russian information warfare. We looked at how it was targeting Ukrainian soldiers in 2014, but they were also targeting Ukrainian politics. They were targeting elections in Hungary and Poland, Brexit in the UK, and the US 2016 election.
When you looked at the tactics of it, you also saw this overlap where ISIS members were copycatting what Taylor Swift was doing. In turn, you had the biggest online celebrity, Donald Trump, become a politician. We had the overlap with the Russian information warfare stuff to aid and abet him. We pull back on all of this.
You had the rise of this concept called Like War. The big takeaway lesson was it wasn’t just shaping what was happening online. It was shaping the real world. It was shaping how people not just thought and what they believed, but their actions, whether they joined a protest or an extremist group, how they voted, and what they thought was the science and the reality of everything from climate change to a global pandemic. We have seen that play out in the Ukraine conflict. All the lessons and research that we surfaced for Like War was taken to extremes and put on steroids in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.Social media wasn't just shaping what was happening online. It was shaping the real world, how people thought, and what they believed but their actions. Click To Tweet
A particular thing that stands out for me is both in your book, research, and writing, you zoom out at the macro level. As an individual, very often, we’re in our little information bubble. We convince ourselves. In fact, information finds us. We don’t even need to find it. It pings in my pocket. It’s very easy to get lost in your own rabbit hole and not see the bigger picture.
Naming it LikeWar gives a poignant title to what is happening. Awareness is getting better, but most people don’t think of it in such a way. “I’m merely checking Facebook. I’m merely seeing what my friends are up to,” but then there are all these other things that you are being exposed to. Perhaps, after this question, we will focus on Ukraine, but how do you think the psychology is playing out on the human individual against this monstrous machine that is social media, in this case?
That’s such a great question, and there are a number of elements to bring into it. One is too many people believe that what they see online, they are the one that purely determines it. In reality, social media is a conflict space. It’s also a communication space. It’s also a commerce space. It’s a marketplace.
It’s owned and operated by private companies that are for-profit. It is designed to maximise your engagement, maximise your time on the platform, as well as steer you to products that people have essentially paid for, whether it is in advertising or the like. You dated yourself by referencing Facebook. Now, everybody is going to think you are an old fuddy-duddy. That’s what our grandparents are on.
TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, or whatever it is, you have algorithms that shape what you see and recommend what you see. It is pushed up on the side to give you greater options. It’s there as if to serve you, “You might be interested in X,” but it’s about maximising that engagement. You have the other cross, which is the role of others in your network.
That’s that aspect of psychology as well where it’s both about maximising engagement, but it’s also people who think like you. People that you think are right because they think like you. You trust them, and then, in turn, when you share it, you are giving that stamp of trust on it for others to engage with. That leads to one of the lessons of this project. It is to understand that you are simultaneously a target, a consumer, and a combatant.
Whether it’s Taylor Swift, who I jokingly think of her as the Marie von Clausewitz of social media strategy, like Marie von Clausewitz, she wrote a strategy essay as a young teen about her understanding of social media and how she was going to use it to achieve her goals, just like Marie edited all of Carl von Clausewitz’s turgid prose and turned it into On War.
The point is whether it’s a celebrity like Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, a Russian information warrior, a Chinese information warrior, a politician in Melbourne, a marketing company in Sydney, or whatever it is, they identify you, not you as an individual but the category that you are with, to figure out ways to reach you. In turn, you are a consumer. You take that information in, and you decide whether to click on it or not. They tried to get it to you, but you decide whether to read it or not.
Also, there’s that combatant side, which is the real goal is to get you not only to consume it but for you to share it out, to take that point of view, or to take that side. Whether it’s the side of that political party, the side of that nation in a conflict, or the side of that brand, you put your stamp on it and carry it forward to your network so it goes even more viral.
One of the other interesting psychology things is when we looked at examples of things that went viral. Whether it was awful things that went viral, like ISIS propaganda, or good things that went viral, think of the ice bucket challenge. They all had these elements that consistently tried to tap into that psychology side to get you to join in. It was provocative. I don’t mean like revealed skin, but rather it provoked a certain emotion like happiness or anger.
Another element of it is consistently, they create a sense of community. It’s not just you. It’s you joining a group and we are part of a team, a squad, or a cause. It tries to enlist you in that, and then you begin to identify with it. Those who don’t agree with you are on the other side. Whether we are talking about good things or bad things, they all followed the same pattern.Social media creates a sense of community. It makes you feel that people who don’t agree with you are on the other side. Click To Tweet
I will end here by saying that the challenge of this for democracies, for kids that are doing research for their school report, or to members of the military is we are constantly bombarded with this. Most of us are on these networks, but we are not trained. We are not given what we would think of as almost digital literacy skills.
I know a lot of members of your audience are on the military side. Think about how you receive training in cybersecurity awareness. Don’t click that link and have good passwords, and yet you are targeted by everything from Russian or Chinese information warfare not to click the link but to take that point of view to marketing. If you are in the US military, we have been hit by some major issues regarding anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories and the like, and yet most don’t get training.
How do I handle the information warfare side of things? I think that’s a major gap whether you are thinking about professional military education or you are thinking about a kid who’s doing school research. You got to get that training so that you don’t go on YouTube, and suddenly your school report is describing how aliens built the pyramids.
That’s such a wonderful summary of what is a huge problem. Social science gives us the tools. We know what type of biases we have and how programmable we are. We’d like to dilute ourselves with this idea that we are autonomous, free-thinking beings, which we know fully well once we start looking at the research that we are not. We are all susceptible to our own biases, our confirmation bias, and our in-group thinking. Social media has taken this to scale.
I want to jump on that because you raised a good point. One is that we are all shaped by that, and yet, everybody thinks it’s someone else. We are the exception to the rule. Having that self-awareness is challenging, and it’s part of being trained up. I’m not claiming to be perfect at it, either. I’m on social media. I’m the doctor who is telling people not to smoke, and then you might catch me out puffing on a cigarette. Even I fall into this.
There’s another part of it, and it brings in the work that we have been doing on Useful Fiction. We are not the consumer, but when we are communicating outwards, whether we are writing a memorandum, a PowerPoint, a speech, or a white paper, we know that humans are not persuaded purely by fact and a series of bullet points. Yet, how do we consistently communicate? We keep on doing it the same old way.
What we have been trying to bring in with the Useful Fiction approach is don’t replace the white paper. You still need the memorandum, but let’s also bring in the oldest communication technology of all, which is story. The human brain is more reactive to the story because of evolution. We have been using it since we were gathered around a fire and a cave.
PowerPoint is 31 years old. It’s not going to be the best way to connect. That part that you bring in is the psychology of how we consume and the psychology of how we communicate. We want to think that pure logic and pure facts, and marshal the right set of bullet points will win the day, but that’s not how it persuades us and that’s not how we need to persuade others.
The power of story and its persuasiveness is unchallenged and unrivalled. This is why we see things like conspiracy theories take hold because disparate facts are weaved into some grand narrative and grand story of a puppet master that’s pulling the strings. Because it invokes emotions, people respond to it.
The power of conspiracy theory is every good narrative, whether we are telling a true story or we are building up a fictional story, the narrative is not just the scenario. It’s the character. The power of conspiracy theory is that the character is always the target audience. You are the hero of the story who figured out the truth that this group out there was trying to trick us all. You realise it, and you are the hero who is now telling others the truth.
That’s why conspiracy theories are a powerful communication approach because it turns whoever it is. They always believe they are the hero of the story. Even the person who’s standing on the soapbox screaming craziness or they are doing it on Twitter believes they are the hero because the conspiracy theory adds in that element of character.Conspiracy theories are a powerful communication approach. They make people believe they are the hero of the story. Click To Tweet
That speaks so much to me, given what we have gone through with the pandemic. I even have people in my close circles who have gone down that rabbit hole and have become their own heroes. They are standing up to the mass media narrative. Those who are trying to deceive us for their nefarious motivations. This brings me to the second point I want to make. One of the things that social media has done is take us from passive recipients of information into active heroes and warriors.
We can have our voices heard or seen through the videos that we might post and so on. Maybe this is a good way to pivot to Ukraine right now because that’s something that we have seen. Traditionally, civilians in war have been passive and voiceless victims. We see snapshots on CNN, BBC, or newspapers of lines of refugees fleeing, and I was one of those. I was in one of those images myself fleeing from Bosnia, Sarajevo. I was a passive victim or survivor, but now that’s very different.
We are now seeing those same refugees or those same people living in cellars and hiding from the invasion beaming out videos and images to the world. What are your thoughts on this? I have read your Politico Article. You capture this arguably rather new phenomenon that we are seeing of how social media has been weaponised. Maybe get some thoughts on that.
It’s such a powerful shift in communication technology that then shifts the way that we see and then “experience the conflict.” It’s like you are there, but you are not there. Let’s be very clear about that. Of course, you have this personal connection. What I’m getting at is that there’s a shift in the who, when, and where.
The shift in the who is you used to rely on the media to be the one that determined what was the news. Out of all the events going on in the world, the media is the term for the middle. It’s the profession in the middle that would select which of the news to cover, how to cover it, what narrative to put on top of it, and what explanation. It would then send it out through a set number of channels. The channel might be the radio station or the newspaper.
Now, anyone potentially is part of the media, whether it is a Ukrainian civilian who pops something on TikTok as they huddle in the subway from bombing, or as they dance around a destroyed BMP laughing about it. The media can be a leader. One of the most powerful things Zelenskyy has done is he’s YouTubing himself as he’s walking down the street or meeting with soldiers. The media can also be inadvertent. It can be the Russian soldier who unintentionally puts information out there. In turn, we can all consume it, see it, and digest it. That’s a shift in the who.
You have a shift in the when. It’s all potentially in real-time. It’s not waiting hours, days, or months. Go back in history and think about how long people used to have to wait for information flow to circulate around the world. It can be shared instantaneously, and that gives a rapid speed to it. You have the final part of it, which is the where. The information can be collected anywhere that there’s a smartphone or traffic cam.
You know Eastern Europe well. A lot of the cool and striking imagery of Russian military build-up before the conflict was from dashboard cams in the cars. People were there to document wrecks, not to document the Russian military build-up. The point is it can be gathered anywhere. It can also be gathered by civilian satellites. In turn, it can be consumed anywhere. You can consume and analyse that information and share it, whether you are sitting in your office or you are sitting on the subway.
You can mine that information and share it with your friends, or you can document it, “Hold it. I have found evidence of this Russian military movement over here,” and share it with the world. It’s incredibly powerful. Let’s be very clear. In no way, shape, or form am I saying that conventional warfare has ended or that the physical fight doesn’t matter, absolutely not. It’s just that the information space is now wrapped up within the physical battlefield and the geopolitical battlefield as well.
Ukraine is a powerful example of that, where on the information side, we have seen the Ukrainian government narrative served to help keep its soldiers and civilians in the fight as opposed to the Russian goal of causing a very rapid collapse. You have seen this unifying effect. You have seen this, “We can win.” You have seen stories of heroism, martyrs, take-off, and mocking the Russian soldiers.
That part of keeping them in the fight, it’s equally important the effect on the narrative outside. Part of the taking off of the Ukrainian message in our information ecosystem, whether it’s in Australia or the US, is that it’s what has led to the delivery of thousands of anti-tank and anti-air rockets. That is partly how the Ukrainians have been able to cause such pain to the Russian invaders. It has also led to massive financial and economic sanctions not just from governments but unexpected governments. Switzerland is joining in the sanctions.
Sweden is giving you arms.
You have lost the information war, but that part matters because it’s not just the physical toll on the battle that, hopefully, alters Putin’s calculations. As much as I would like, I don’t know if he’s going to be persuaded all that much by Russian soldier losses, but it’s the effect on his economy. The effect of what these massive sanctions mean for Russian politics. It is driven by the information warfare side. That circles back to affecting the flow and hopefully, the end of the overall war itself.
There’s a clear asymmetry in Ukraine’s use of information and the power that it’s garnering on global reach. It’s almost like they have opened all the taps to communicate with the rest of the world. Whereas Russia is completely the opposite. It has completely turned the taps off. It has closed off its internal information domain, and trying to control the narrative so tightly that it makes it an asymmetric war. How important do you think is the justice or the justness of the Ukrainian struggle? How important is it in the victory of this information war that we are seeing from the Ukrainian side?
It’s very important, but it’s not the only causal factor. Let’s pull back. I think what has been so striking to people is not just as you laid out the Ukrainian message and the Ukrainian side has won out in the information war but who is it done against, or the supposed Russian masters at it. There are a couple of elements at play. One is that the Ukrainians have been the ones who have been masterful this time around. Part of that is that they and the wider world have been studying, watching, and learning. I described it as if you compare to what Russia was able to do in Ukraine in 2014 or the US election in 2016. It was effectively pushing against an open door. It’s the same thing throughout most of the Trump administration.
A lot of what it was able to get away with wasn’t possible as people learned their tricks and tactics. Let’s be more formal. Their TTPs, the battle space also changed in terms of the platform companies themselves, altering what was allowed. Back in 2016, during the US election, for example, there were more than 60,000 Russian bot accounts that shaped narratives. There were more than 3,000 known Russian sock puppet accounts. Bot algorithms are driving overall trends. A sock puppet is a real person behind a fake account. A lot of that low-hanging fruit that the Facebooks and the Twitters were allowing in 2016, they are no longer allowing now. It’s a little bit too late, but at least they caught up.
As we were talking about it earlier, the space had changed. The Ukrainians brought in all sorts of best practices. They were aided by this wider network of governments, from the US and NATO to online networks of activists and security analysts. That was one key. The US, Ukraine, Australia, and all these forces are learning lessons and doing it better.
The second problem is a disconnect between Russia’s operational needs and Putin’s political needs. On his information warfare side, he had to push the narrative both targeting Ukraine and also the West, but also his audience of, “I’m not invading. I’m responding to an emergency.” Secondly, it’s fait accompli. It’s all done. “Ukraine has collapsed to the West. Why would you even think about putting in harsh sanctions? Ukraine has already collapsed to its own people. This is not a war. It’s over. It’s easy. It’s a special operation.” The problem is that he needed that for political reasons, but it didn’t match the reality. Obviously, it was an invasion, but there was no quick collapse. You had that disconnect.
The third is what you brought up, which is the justness of the cause. That’s powerful and important not just to us morally and politically but to the narrative side. It’s David versus Goliath. Who are you going to choose? You are going to choose David. There’s also something else going on, and I don’t have the analytic side. It’s a gut feeling, but there has been so much bad going on, whether it’s pandemic, extremism, or division. A lot of those issues sometimes have been hard to figure out how to handle, or it’s kind of grey, whereas this is so clear. We were all waiting.
We needed a new enemy to feel good about being good.
I think that feeds into it. Let’s do a counterfactual. Let’s imagine Ukraine is invaded. Its cause is being beaten up by a bigger neighbour, but let’s imagine a world where Ukraine doesn’t handle information operations as effectively. The Russian invasion forces are not documented weeks beforehand. Zelenskyy doesn’t communicate effectively. He acts like Putin.
Let’s imagine Zelenskyy only gives briefings from a palace at the end of a long table, or even worse, he acts as the leadership did in Afghanistan. Zelenskyy gets on a plane and leaves Ukraine with a briefcase full of cash. Imagine a world where that happens. Imagine there’s no global movement to pressure corporations.
Are you really going to stay in Russia and do business? Imagine if that doesn’t happen even if the Ukrainian cause is they are the victim in the story. I don’t think you have the same outcomes. That counterfactual illustrates the importance of the information side of the fight. It doesn’t mean it’s determinative, but it does show the value of it.
It’s also democratising war in many ways. As active consumers of social media information, we are telegraphing or signalling our support, and asking our governments to do more. I have no doubt that has played a role in Germany and why Germany dropped its Aus Politics. All of a sudden, Nord Stream 2 has been turned off, and Germany is armed with F-35s. Switzerland or Sweden, which has been neutral for twenty years, is now giving weapons.
I have no doubt that this is partially because of the power of social media, and the narrative that constituents in these various countries have embraced and have stood up through their voice or through the sheer mass and the scale that it has gone to. We are seeing it even in the US. Many Republicans who were largely pro-Russia have now sided with the Ukrainians. Even Trump has now talked to Zelenskyy as a hero, which is following your constituents. That’s pivoting to where the momentum is going.
You could get whiplash by how rapidly we have seen both historically. Policy changes by nations but also quite hypocritical shifts by politicians. You hit it exactly right in terms of historical shifts in European politics. It’s motivated both by the threat of Russia and also by populations that were once divided. Key questions are now coming together and saying, “This policy, we support.”
Even in Germany, the example I like to use is they were like, “We ought to aid Ukraine.” The first thing that the government did was to offer 500 helmets. Its own populace was like, “No.” The government was like, “We are finally going to aid.” Within 24 hours, it had shifted to, “We are also going to give rockets.” You’ve got that, but then you also noted the incredible, fascinating, and disgusting shifts by certain politicians.
You’ve got Trump who is on record. It’s not me making it up. It’s his own quotes describing Putin as genius or savvy. Related to Zelenskyy, he shook down Zelenskyy. He held off giving military aid. This is the infamous phone call where it was, “Do us a favour and find dirt on my political rival Joe Biden. Only then will you get your military aid.”
After all that, he’s suddenly out there going, “He’s a brave guy.” A different example would be our former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who screamed at a journalist a year ago, “Do you think Americans care about effing Ukraine?” A year later, he’s saying, “This is why we ought to be giving more aid to Ukraine.” It’s craziness but that’s part of something to be aware of in social media. It is the concept of what we call gaslighting.
Gaslighting is when you push a reality that doesn’t match reality, but if you keep doing it enough, you hope that it sticks and creates an information bubble around your target audience that they believe it. Even if you are on record saying X, you can keep saying Y. Maybe people ultimately will believe, or enough people in your information bubble will believe that you stood for Y rather than X.Gaslighting is when you push a reality that doesn't match reality. But if you keep doing it enough, you hope that it sticks and creates an information bubble around your target audience that they believe it. Click To Tweet
It is incredible. That’s part of human psychology. We are so susceptible and vulnerable to it. There’s so much information coming at us. It’s very hard to remember what somebody said three days ago, let alone a year ago. I like the term you use, bandwagoning or the bandwagoning effect that we are seeing. I’m conscious of our time, and I will wrap this up soon. While I have you, I can’t help but ask you about the dangers of what we are talking about as well.
As we talked about this, we are seeing the virality. In this case, it is objectively the right thing to do. I’m biased, but I consider Ukraine to be the victim here. Therefore, what’s happening in the information space is the right thing in my view, and yours as well. Most of my audience will agree. However, you are a futurist. In the future, we can potentially see the use of these same technologies and the same emotional triggers that they invoke in us.
As we see in the pandemic, for example, in some elements of society, we could potentially see the same for other wars. We have information and social media being weaponised to support certain wars that may not be as righteous as we see the resistance of the Ukrainians. How do you view that particular problem? Can we even do anything about it?
We have already seen it within this conflict. I have been very transparent with you. I’m trying to be analytical, but I’m also a human. I live in a democracy, and I believe Ukraine’s side is right compared to the Russian invader. Even within that, we have seen examples. A good illustration would be the story of the Ghost of Kyiv. The Ukrainian fighter ace who repeatedly shot down six Russian jets within the first hours of the war, or the defenders of Snake Island when the Russian Navy ship tells them to surrender, and they say, “Go f*** yourself.” Supposedly, all of them are killed.
As with so much in war and the internet, it turns out that each of these has an element of truth in it but is maybe not 100% factual like the Ghost of Kyiv. We had Russian jets shot down over Kyiv. Was it actually six? It’s not clear. Was it all six shot down by a single individual? Not clear and probably not true. The defenders of Snake Island turned out they all were not martyrs. It’s still unclear, but some may have been captured as opposed to being killed.
What was interesting is when you have seen these follow-ups that say, “X happened. We have documented it.” In the comments, there are people saying, “Normally, I would care about the truth, but why don’t you give this one to Ukraine? They’ve got so much else going.” That’s something to be aware of. Another issue is to be aware of what we call the concept of card stacking, where there’s an overall war. There are all the cards, but you are seeing just a couple of elements of it. They are ones that people present to you, and/or you are more drawn to because they are in your network, or you find those stories more powerful.
If you followed most of our feeds, it would be only imagery of Russian tanks being blown up or Russian units being defeated. At the same time, if you pull out a map, you’d go, “I saw these examples of Russian losing, but hold it. They have seized a lot of terrains.” You get two different viewpoints. That’s something that has happened already within this war. As you note, we are going to see it in any future war. Everybody is looking and learning from this.
An interesting question to end with is what are we learning? What are our militaries learning from the war in Ukraine? We are learning the importance of the information warfare side. We are learning here’s how you do it, how you do it well, and how you don’t do it well. We are learning about a lot of other technologies out there. You think about the discourse around drones or unmanned systems. It used to be they don’t matter, or they are good for counterterrorism or counterinsurgency, and we are seeing them play a pretty significant role in a conventional fight.
What are other nations out there learning from it? As an example, China is learning a couple of things from this. One, don’t let the information environment stand up and be there to be utilised by your adversary. The Russians left up Ukrainian networks for two reasons. One, they thought it was to their advantage. They thought that they would be able to push out information that would rapidly collapse the Ukrainian state. Second, they logistically depended on it. They are using civilian cell networks and the like.
China is looking at a Taiwan scenario and goes, “We are not going to make that mistake.” The other thing that China looks at is this larger global coalition of democracies and corporations that came together to punish and sanction Russia. China looks at that and says, “What do we need to do over the next several years to keep that from ever happening to us? How do we ensure that we are less dependent on these financial systems? What they did to the rouble, they can’t do to our currency. Also, the flip side is how do we make sure that they are reliant and dependent on us so that all the different economies and corporations that could fairly easily walk away from the business in Moscow, don’t walk away from the business in Beijing.” Those are the questions that are going to be with us for years to come.
I’m conscious of our time, so I appreciate the time you have given me. We have gone a little bit over as well. Thank you so much. It’s deeply insightful as I expected. I hope to speak to you again in the future.
I appreciate you having me on.
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