The Best Counter to Misinformation is More Information
By Justin Malzac
As war spread across Ukraine earlier this year, Russia and its allies were spinning tales and stretching the truth to support a clearly unlawful use of force. First it was a claim that Ukraine was committing genocide against ethnic Russians in contested regions. Next was a claim that neo-Nazis in Ukraine posed an immediate threat to Russia, as a pretense for an unlawful invasion, or a false defense offered by the aggressors is that Ukraine was developing nuclear or biological weapons. Meanwhile, Russian censors went into overdrive back home, and the government even passed a law threatening anyone who calls the “Ukraine issue” a war with 15 years in prison. Information has now become a strategic weapon, even in conventional wars.
In a recent article I wrote for the Harvard National Security Journal, I examine the customary rules of international law as they relate to influence operations, showing that there exists a wide maneuver space for lawful information operations, especially those that are truthful or that promote compliance with international law. I argue that the fight against malicious influence cannot simply be defensive, but rather the West must expand our own influence operations against these bad actors. We must fight misinformation with the truth, by employing overwhelming fires.
There is still a lot of debate regarding which rules of international law apply to information operations (including non-kinetic cyber). For its part, the United States has consistently opined that the principle of sovereignty is not implicated when operations have de minimus kinetic effects. Previous DOD General Counsels have gone as far as to argue that sovereignty is a principle of international law without independent legal effect. Sovereignty is brought into play through other core principles of customary international law, such as non-intervention. Regardless, one need not look at sovereignty per se when examining non-kinetic information operations for which the goal is influencing populations. Affecting the behavior of other states and their populations falls squarely under the scope of intervention.
That being said, the principle of non-intervention has a significant threshold before an act becomes unlawful. Information operations violate this principle when they involve “coercive action that bears on a matter that each state is entitled, by the principle of state sovereignty, to decide freely, such as the choice of a political, economic, social, and cultural system.” Therefore, propaganda operations that have a direct and disruptive effect on fundamental government activities, such Russian misinformation operations against elections in the West, constitute internationally wrongful acts. On the contrary, information operations that seek to present truthful information or to pressure states to comply with their international obligations are lawful. This is because the obligations of states rooted in treaty or customary law are not purely domestic matters (or part of the “domaine réservé” of the state) and, thus, do not fall under the scope of non-intervention.
On the other hand, international law makes it difficult for states to restrict or prevent the spread of misinformation. International Human Rights Law protects the freedom of speech and access to information. One of the clearest example of this is stated in Resolution 424 of the fifth UN General Assembly, which affirms “the right of all persons to be fully informed concerning news, opinions and ideas regardless of frontiers” and “[i]nvites the governments of all Member States to refrain from such interference with the right of their peoples to freedom of information.”
What is a state to do when engaged in grey zone battles against misinformation? Sometimes, the only defense is a good offense. As argued by Justice Louis Brandies in his concurring opinion to Whitney v. California, “[i]If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” The rest of this article will provide some examples that support this argument.
Prior to the outbreak of conflict in Eastern Europe, one of the hotbeds of information warfare was the Korean Peninsula. For decades, the North and South have been engaged in a pitched culture war, trying to dominate the hearts and minds of not only their domestic audiences, but all Koreans. Like Russia today, North Korea strictly controls all information inside the country and even all access points, such as the internet and any physical travel.
In recent decades, the South, both through official government actions and the private efforts of NGOs, have used K-pop culture as a dagger against the brutal authoritarian control of the Kim regime in the North. Instead of messaging that directly supporting regime change—which would likely violate international law—the South instead offers the North Korean people a glimpse into life in the 10th largest economy in the world. The hope is by revealing how severely the North’s loss of the ideological war has affected everyday life, the populace will be encouraged to promote change from below, or at a minimum, defect to the South, providing strategic gains.
The effectiveness of this campaign can be seen in the number of defectors who claim to have viewed South Korean media in conjunction with rise in the number of defectors, the increased crackdown within North Korea, and the even violent reaction of the North Korean military to dissemination. For example, in 2017 North Korea employed military force in response to loudspeaker broadcasts from the South. This was a flagrant violation of the Korean Armistice Agreement and the basic tenets of international law.
Returning to Europe, Estonia was one of the first European countries to face the rath of the rising Russian bear, when the capital Tallinn was hacked in 2007. This prompted the Western world to begin seriously thinking about the emerging cyber threat, even prompting the development of the Tallinn Manual.
But cyber defense was not Estonia’s only response. The country is also proactively combating Russian misinformation with its own influence campaign. Efforts include a Russian language TV channel and government-sponsored cultural classes. As noted in a PBS Newshour special report, the intent of these measures is “to make the Russian-speaking community feel more welcome and, it's hoped, less susceptible to grievance-based narratives spread by Russian state media.” The report suggests that efforts might be paying off, with the viewership of Etonian-sponsored content increasing among Russian speakers.
In Ukraine, long before the current armed conflict, information battles have been raging throughout the country, but none more fiercely than in the separatist regions of Donetsk and the Donbas. Some of the Russian content is typical PSYOP (psychological operations), in the form of messages to opposing troops to “surrender” and “go home.” In one case, a Russian soldier was convinced to turn over an in-tact tank in exchange for money.
But some of the content generated by Russia is far more malicious, such as directing Ukrainian soldiers to murder their commanding officers. Russia has also been spreading disinformation to civilians in order to spread chaos in the cities, such as spamming text messages to civilian cell phones stating that local ATMs had ceased functioning, in order to spread panic. Since Russia is engaged in an active international armed conflict, this may constitute a violation of the fundamental principle of distinction—that belligerents must not make civilians the target of attack. Arguably, an information operation that seeks to create manifest effects on the streets and the potential for violence approaches the threshold of an attack. In order to spread division in the ranks, and also within Ukrainian society in general, Russia has resorted to what some have called a “firehose of falsehood.”
To counter the assault, some of the Ukrainian forces began broadcasting their own radio programs. As reported by Politico, one of these programs featured “a prisoner of war who had been held and tortured by Russian insurgents in her home in Donetsk in 2014.” She spoke simply of her home, her family and baby. The effectiveness of these programs can be implied by the severe response. Not only did Russian-backed forces attempt to jam or disrupt the broadcasts, they also launched kinetic strikes on the transmission sites.
Some in Ukraine have urged for the development of Russian-language media channels, in order to fight misinformation and bring the Russian-speaking populace back into the fold. The Russian-Ukrainian language divide is one of the major factors that has fueled conflict in separatist areas for over a decade. Prior efforts in Estonia suggest these sorts of efforts could be successful.
In the current Ukraine conflict, the Ukrainians have been employing information against the iron curtain of Russian censorship. With Russia imposing prison time on anyone who uses the terms “war” or “invasion” in regards to the Ukraine issue, among other controls, along with western-based social media and news organizations pulling out of the country, the domestic audience remains without legitimate sources of information. Ukrainians are combatting this information famine by sending facts directly to those in control of the narrative in Russia. The Ukrainian government has also been disseminating to the general populace of Russia, inviting parents to come collect their sons being held as POWs, and also publishing videos of these POWs denouncing the war. Ukraine has also been publishing the comments of captured Russian troops, who convey a sense of regret for the campaign and the resultant harm to civilians. The response from some suggests the effort is having an effect.
At the strategic level, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law authorizing large payments, up to $1 million, to Russian troops who surrender significant military equipment, such as ships or fighter aircraft. However, there doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy of how to disseminate this information to the right audiences.
As of this writing, the Ukrainian conflict is reaching its fourth month. Russia, along with China and other supporters, is clamping down on information harder than ever. This presents more opportunities for offensive information operations from the Ukrainian side. Freezing something often makes it more brittle. Hardening can create cracks and open gaps.
Currently, much of the information campaign has been waged through radio, telephones, and computers. But, with more and more Russian troops on the ground in Ukraine, perhaps the time has come for some old fashioned, physical forms of dissemination. Craig Hooper has argued in Forbes that Russian language leaflets could be distributed by drone, or even by hand. And radio ops could be intensified, targeting the cheap, unencrypted radios carried by Russian troops. In the age of cyber, Cooper argues “Old school influencing is easy and safe for both the employer and the receiver. Pamphlets are harmless. And nobody tracks a conscript who picks up a piece of paper or listens to a hijacked radio signal.” The point is to give the young and reluctant Russian solder a decision, a way to “opt out”. By convincing them that they will be treated fairly if they surrender, many just might.
One fundamental problem seems to be the lack of a coherent and unified information operations (IO) strategy in Ukraine. There are countless efforts ongoing, utilizing different media on different digital fronts, but there might not be established and measurable goals. This may be a space where the United States can provide assistance. Within the US Department of Defense, psychological operations teams are the experts for influencing audiences. In the DOD, influence operations are labeled Military Information Support Operations, or MISO, and “advise and assist” of foreign forces is now a key mission set for these teams.
US MISO teams could support senior Ukrainian IO officers by training them to consolidate their efforts under a broad operations plan that includes specified lines of effort (LOEs) and defined measures of effectiveness (MOEs). It is just as important to track and measure the results of IO efforts, as it is to come up with new dissemination concepts. Policy authority already exists for this sort of mission. It will be important for this training to be conducted remotely, such as with the Remote Advise and Assist Virtual Accompany Kits (RAAVAK) in the SOCOM inventory, or in the territory of neutral countries, in order to prevent the Unites States from being drawn into the conflict as an belligerent.
But the information effort to secure Ukraine, and to restore and maintain the global order, needs to extend far beyond the borders of a single country. Belarus, whose leader has allowed his country to be used as a staging ground for an unlawful war of aggression and who turned his country’s guns against his own people, is ripe for an awakening. While it may be unlawful to use information operations to directly promote regime change, simply informing an audience that their government is violating key tenets of international law is not. In China, the truth of the Ukrainian conflict is being blocked. This truth is essential for the Chinese people to have a full understanding of the implications of any potential attack on Taiwan. And of course, the Russian people must be informed of what their government is doing unlawfully in their name. For the United States, there is a need for both support of Ukrainian IO efforts and also unilateral action.
The information space is not the battlefield of the future. It is the battlefield of today. Unfortunately, the West does not yet seem fully committed to the fight. This must change.