The War for Minds; Mitigating the Effects of Ideological Subversion
By COL Scott C. White
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we lose our freedoms, it will be because we have destroyed ourselves from within.
—Attributed to Abraham Lincoln
The quote above is frequently attributed to Abraham Lincoln, yet it is done so in error. It is an oversimplification of a passage from his 1838 address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, entitled "The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions." The actual verbiage from what the above is derived was more eloquently developed, but when analyzed, the message is the same. Despite the simplified version often quoted, Abraham Lincoln said, “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time or die by suicide.” It is in this regard that our Nation, through a purposefully executed campaign of ideological subversion, “the process of changing one’s perception of reality,” has been targeted for decades. Soviet propaganda and political warfare started a chain of events in American society that is gradually degrading domestic unity, trust in government and its institutions, and weakening our democracy. Countering this process will take substantial effort on the part of the entire citizenry within the United States. At the same time, failure will undoubtedly enable these subversive actions to weaken our democracy, diminish the United States’ stature in the world, and degrade national security.
Understanding where it all began is a crucial component of plotting a course for the future. In this regard, it is essential to identify and understand historic Soviet attempts at weaponizing information to sow dissent and division within the United States. Therefore, this paper will trace the history of Soviet ideological subversion, albeit briefly, to lay a foundation from which to build. Once complete, the recognition of its connection to the 21st century’s disinformation struggle will be readily apparent. To further solidify the linkage, I will draw specific connections between the Soviet purposes, and those of the Russian Federation evident throughout the 2016 presidential campaign season, to create division and distrust. In the internet age, massive amounts of information, some truthful and some not, are spread through social media. Hence, our susceptibility to subversive narratives is high, such that it enables hostile actors to manipulate our perceptions of reality. With this in mind, this paper will provide mitigation strategies to insulate the United States and its citizens from the persistent campaigns of information warfare playing out on the internet and within our society daily.
Almost 200 years ago, and less than 100 years from our founding as a free and unified Nation, Abraham Lincoln rightly identified one of the gravest threats to our Democratic Republic; that of destroying the fabric of our Nation from the inside. Although discussions about American values and unity being purposely targeted by adversarial regimes are frequently relegated to "far-right" or "far-left" propaganda, the attacks on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election have made the concept mainstream. Today, “the biggest crisis facing our Nation…is the crisis of contempt – the polarization that is tearing our society apart." The strength of a democracy lies within the unity and cohesion that exists within its citizens. The ability to reach a consensus gives the representative government the power to act on behalf of its citizens, anchored to shared values, and a universal sense of right and wrong. However, over the last several years, and even more so since the 2016 presidential election, the unity and cohesion necessary to enable the United States' continued leadership on the global stage continue to degrade. Our two-party system of governance has become increasingly gridlocked, thus allowing for little if any bipartisan or cross-party efforts to take hold.
The 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, has been the subject of almost constant investigation and scrutiny since his inauguration. Currently, the President has been impeached by the Democrat-held House of Representatives by a vote split along party lines. Expectedly, the Republican-held Senate acquitted President Trump, again as in the House, by an almost exclusively party-line vote. Almost immediately following the trial, President Trump lashed out at all who had voted against him, motivating his base of supporters, yet further alienating the Democratic Party. During the State of the Union (SOTU) address the following day, February 4, 2020, President Trump failed to shake the hand of the Speaker of the House, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, when she offered a greeting. In turn, Speaker Pelosi ripped up her copy of the President’s speech on national television at the SOTU’s conclusion. The party-line votes in the Impeachment, as well as the failure to observe traditional formalities, such as the President's perceived refusal to shake the Speaker of the House's hand before the SOTU and Speaker Pelosi's public destruction of the SOTU speech, indicate how deep the divide has become. The unusual behavior exhibited on both sides of the aisle should create a sense of fear in us concerning the ability of our government to perform its duties on our behalf.
Americans are reminded daily, through popular media outlets, social media, and face-to-face social interactions, of the degree to which our unity and cohesion have diminished. Division and animosity have become an increasingly regular aspect of life within the United States. The path that led to the division and hostility present in American society today was not a journey of chance or coincidence. It is a product of actions taken by the most persistent and existential threat to the United States following WWII; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR. American society was targeted by Ideological Subversion, the process of changing ones’ perception of reality.
Understanding our susceptibility to information warfare, as historic Soviet Ideological Subversion and the more recent Russian Federation social media disinformation campaigns surely are, is an essential component of our continued national security. Nevertheless, merely identifying past attacks does nothing for the future of our Republic. When initially conducted, Ideological Subversion relied on messaging done primarily through word of mouth and written publications. As of 2019, 81% of Americans utilize the internet daily, with 28% online almost constantly. Messages can be developed and inserted into our society from afar, often disguised as legitimate sources, but just as easily spread through internet forums populated by individuals that share partisan ideologies. The widespread usage of the internet within the United States has created a direct line between those that are trying to influence the population, and the target of the influence campaign itself. The internet provides a medium through which a grain of truth, combined with falsified details that people are predisposed to believe, can be implanted within society to create a perception or narrative that works to divide and weaken the United States.
Following the Communist takeover of Russia in 1917, Soviet agents began infiltrating American society to conduct ideological subversion and erode the democratic strength of their primary impediment to Communist expansion. Through ideological subversion, the Soviets sought to create distrust and dissent within American society while creating an increased divide between its institutions of government and the community that they govern. The Soviet response to the growing threat posed by the United States was to attempt to turn the society upside down and undermine or subvert its source of strength; unity, pride, and American Exceptionalism. Ideological subversion was a key component of Soviet expansion efforts. As stated by Yuri Andropov, the former head of the Soviet KGB and the third General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “the war of Communist aggression (expansion of Communism) is the final struggle for the minds and hearts of the people.” The process of tilling the soil, or preparing the mind for what was to come under Communist rule was necessary, but even more so was the destruction of the moral fabric of American society to enable the roots to take hold and grow. As stated by Sun-Tzu, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill…thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them, and overthrow his state without protracted operations.” Ideological subversion was an integral part of the Soviet strategy to undermine American exceptionalism and enable Communism to triumph over capitalism. In line with "The Art of War," originally penned over 2500 years ago, this strategy sought to win the war by subverting the society and capturing the minds of its citizens through a purposeful campaign to “Corrupt the young…Divide the people…Destroy people’s faith in their national leaders…Preach democracy, but seize power…Encourage government extravagances…Incite strikes and protests…and Cause the breakdown of the old moral virtues.”
In recent years, the American public has become more aware of the Soviet espionage activities that continued throughout the Cold War. Merriam Webster defines espionage as “the practice of spying or using spies to obtain information about the plans and activities, especially of a foreign government or a competing company." Throughout the Cold War, numerous high-level business, military, and interagency personalities provided the USSR with a wealth of information on technology development, nuclear weapons programs, secret communications protocols, and a myriad of other sensitive programs and capabilities; to include U.S. Minuteman nuclear missile silo plans, air defense radars and missile technology, and the B-1 Bomber and F-15’s radar specifications to name a few.
As portrayed in the 2013-2018 television series, “The Americans,” a series that dramatized Soviet espionage activities in the United States throughout the Reagan administration, spies were active throughout the United States during the Cold War working at the behest of the USSR. Although the television series is fictional in its details, the concept of agents of the Kremlin active within the United States is disturbingly accurate. Soviet espionage required a closely supervised network of agents that were working under the guidance and supervision of an agent of the KGB, thus requiring intricate control throughout the process. The operational task was monitored until completed, the results were assessed and analyzed for their intelligence value, and then additional tasks were given. Although Soviet espionage within the United States to obtain political or military information is widely understood, the less understood Soviet covert activities are the active measures that were unleashed to weaken the United States and its alliances, while eroding American unity and cohesion.
In a 1998 CNN interview, Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB Major General, spoke at length about active measures. Differentiating them from espionage, he stated that active measures were “not intelligence collection, but subversion; active measures to weaken the West, to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO; to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States…and thus to prepare the ground in case war occurs." The subversive intent behind active measures was addressed more recently in a 2018 House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence report on Russian active measures, clearly defining them as “covert influence activities run by the Russian Intelligence Services.” Conversely to the centralized control and intelligence collection goal inherent to Soviet espionage, active measures, although centralized in narrative production, were overwhelmingly decentralized in their execution and done to influence a targeted audience. Indirect in their nature and veiled in their purpose, they followed a simple guiding principle that "to destroy the House the enemy does not have to intrude physically into it. It is enough to start a fire next door and wait until the wind blows in the right direction."
The decisive point of Soviet active measures was gaining access to key influencers within American society. In a free and open society where education was virtually universal, economic accomplishment created increased time for entertainment, and the news was published and distributed without government involvement, the identification of the institutions that could prove most fruitful in accomplishing Stalin's goals was simple. Although the Soviets attempted and often succeeded in infiltrating numerous government institutions through their extensive espionage efforts, the main targets for carrying on ideological subversion were academia, the media, and Hollywood’s growing entertainment industry. Through these institutions and their expansive network into the heartland of America, the KGB sought to prepare the physical and cognitive environment to realize the goals of the Kremlin. With the prime targets identified, Soviet agents only needed to identify key influencers within the institutions to assist, wittingly or not, in planting the seeds to grow and alter perceptions within American society. This process, known as Demoralization by the KGB officers that put it into motion, had an expected timeframe of 15-20 years. Once the ideas were emplaced, the expectation was that they would create a life of their own, the results of which would exponentially increase over time. Therefore, “…the effects of active measure operations could continue forever.”
The Soviet intent to subvert the United States from within was the overarching goal of active measures. The strong and powerful American democracy, although officially wed to its founding principles and doctrine, was built upon the shoulders of people. Through active measures, their minds could be infected, ideas changed, and beliefs subverted. As insisted by Lenin, "First we will take Eastern Europe; then the masses of Asia. Then we will encircle the United States of America, which will be the last bastion of capitalism. We will not have to attack it; it will fall like overripe fruit into our hands.” This is an obvious statement of the intent to use ideological subversion to realize the global expansion of Communism. Although the Soviet Union lost its struggle against the West in 1991, the enduring effects of its active measures campaign continue to reap the benefits of earlier work. The Soviet Union’s expansive active measures campaign, and its resulting ideological subversion, illustrated for their successor, the Russian Federation, a weakness in American society that could be further exploited to divide American society and weaken the West.
The Internet Research Agency
The digital connectivity that the 21st-century world has grown accustomed to has drastically reduced the perceived vastness of the world. Everyday devices, such as smartphones and personal computers, have given individuals the ability to communicate globally in an almost instantaneous manner, and without ever leaving the comfort of one’s home. Technology, and specifically the internet, has created a world "that for the first time in human history allows people to maintain rich connections with much larger numbers of people." Internet forums, chat rooms, networking sites, and social media have, to a degree, created an alternate universe of sorts. It is an environment where you can be whom you want, when you want, and act in ways that you would not have the courage to do in a face-to-face setting. The internet has enabled the creation of self-proclaimed experts with cult-like followings. Frequently devoid of critical thought or analysis, these followers believe and repeat anything posted. Although this technologically advanced environment provides us with many benefits, at the same time, exploitation of this cyber domain can sway public opinion, create doubt and distrust, and construct an alternate reality so convincing that it becomes real. The cyber domain has given the concept of ideological subversion a means by which to rapidly and persistently inject subversive ideas and narratives into a susceptible target population. In keeping with its original intent, the result is a weakened society that lacks trust for its government institutions, is unsure of the validity of the myriad of "truths” presented, and has lost the strength provided by unity and cohesion.
The United States Military has realized the importance of information as a means to compete within the modern global sphere. In so doing, it has coined the term "Information Warfare" (I.W.) as a catch-all for utilizing information to gain or maintain an advantage. Often, the civilian populace in a target country or region is the focus of I.W., and thus, are either "knowingly or unknowingly functioning as proxies on behalf of a government.”
As a target of ongoing Information Warfare, the citizens of the United States, primarily through their infatuation with the “world at their fingertips” provided by the internet, have been increasingly targeted the last several years. Undoubtedly, the most controversial and well-known adversarial I.W. campaigns were conducted throughout the 2016 United States Presidential campaign season. According to a New Knowledge report prepared for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and released in December 2018, the Russian Federation (through the Internet Research Agency) conducted a "long-running and broad influence operation…targeting American citizens from 2014 through 2017." Frequently portrayed as "Russian Collusion" or simply "Russian Election Interference," the Russian Federation executed a textbook I.W. or Ideological Subversion campaign building upon the foundation laid by their Soviet predecessors. Their attempt at subversion followed three distinct lines:
1. Attempts to hack online voting systems;
2. A cyber-attack targeting the Democratic National Committee, executed by GRU, which led to a controlled leak via Wikileaks of email data related to the Clinton Presidential campaign team;
3. A sweeping and sustained social influence operation consisting of various coordinated disinformation tactics aimed directly at U.S. citizens, designed to exert political influence and exacerbate social divisions in U.S. culture.
By improving the reach and perceived veracity of legacy Soviet active measures techniques through the use of the internet and social media, “The Russian government, at the direction of President Vladimir Putin, sought to sow discord in American society and undermine our faith in the democratic process.”
The Russian Federation’s campaign to create division and distrust throughout the 2016 presidential election season is, still today, a familiar story on television news networks, social media feeds, and in interpersonal interactions. Yet, the Russian intent to divide the American population seems to be absent in its entirety. Instead, narratives promulgating "Russian Collusion," "Russian Interference," Putin destroying Hillary Clinton's hopes of becoming President, and President Trump being a Russian agent continue to spread throughout society. Although these seem to be distributed to illustrate the threat we are facing, they reinforce the purpose for which Russia's Internet Research Agency focused so much effort within the cyber domain; “to exploit societal fractures, blur the lines between reality and fiction, erode our trust in media entities and the information environment, in government, in each other, and in democracy itself.” Assertions questioning the validity of the presidential election equate to failing to see the forest for the trees, and make Russia’s actions more fruitful than they otherwise would have been. The current narratives convey Russia’s actions in a way that furthers our divide, both socially and politically, but “until this is reframed as a nonpartisan issue, akin to something as basic as health education, the United States will remain at grave risk.”
As a nation of laws, confronting threats to our society is often accomplished through policies, guidelines, and legislation. These approaches may discourage some behaviors, but they are ineffective, and quite possibly inappropriate for tackling the growing problem that ideological subversion, disinformation, and fake news present to the United States. Surely the government is an essential aspect of mitigation strategies, but just as important are the responsibilities that journalists, internet providers and social media outlets, our education system, and consumers have in combating this threat to our democratic Republic. Mitigation requires a holistic effort focused through; (1) government, (2) journalists, (3) internet providers and social media outlets, (4) the education system, and (5) the consumer. "We’re all part of the battle. We are surrounded by countless information struggles – some apparent, some invisible – all of which seek to alter our perceptions of the world. Whatever we notice, whatever we “like,” whatever we share, becomes the next salvo. In this new war of wars, taking place on the network of networks, there is no neutral ground.” Therefore, we all play a vital role in inoculating ourselves from the effects, and where able, preventing the spread and dissemination of false, misleading, and potentially damaging information throughout our social groups. Often, bias makes identifying incorrect information and false narratives seemingly impossible, but it is possible and, to mitigate ideological subversion’s impact, it is essential. The next section will offer actions that can be taken by the government, journalists, internet providers and social media outlets, educators, and consumers to protect the United States from harmful attacks in the information realm.
The government plays a vital role in combating information warfare that seeks to undercut the democratic system of governance. The obvious means of using legislation to limit the information posted online may appear, on the surface, to be necessary in light of the identified degree to which the Russian Federation utilized the internet to deepen the divides already present within our society. However, doing so would create another success for our foes by subverting our most cherished founding document, the U.S. Constitution. The 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States clearly articulates the limitations of government in this realm by asserting that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Although this does not negate the government's role in this endeavor, it undoubtedly limits the ability of the government to establish laws preventing false or misleading information from being spread throughout society.
Our elected officials are at the epicenter of the partisan divide, and in many cases, their comments and rhetoric work to divide, vice unite, the populace. As the representatives of the citizens of the United States, they must work to take the politics out of the equation and reframe the problem in a nonpartisan manner. With this, the unity and cohesion of the government, focused on combatting a threat instead of establishing political victories, will incubate within society a united front against further attacks and attempts at ideological subversion.
Reframed as a nonpartisan issue, with the government recognized as the steward of peace, prosperity, and security, additional actions can be taken to protect society further. This will provide the government an opportunity to lessen division by focusing society on the actual problem. Through the leadership and mentorship of our government officials, the importance of individual responsibility, which “in the last two decades… has become popular among both Republicans and Democrats,” can be thrust upon society with bipartisan support. This will enlist every member of society in a strategic campaign designed to mitigate the effects of ideological subversion by establishing an active defense against destructive activities in the information space.
Since our founding, journalists have provided society with an essential means to maintain oversight of their elected representatives. Separated from the daily workings of government, the citizenry relies on journalists, through various forms of media, to stay abreast of the critical happenings within our government bureaucracy. Trust in the professionalism of journalists, as well as their accurate and unbiased reporting, is fundamental to this endeavor. The concept of fake news has put into question the once essential role of the media, and “in today’s context of disinformation and misinformation, the ultimate jeopardy is not unjustifiable regulation of journalism, but that publics may come to disbelieve all content – including journalism.”
Clear distinctions must be made between journalists reporting the facts of a given situation and opinion media coverage that is commonplace on cable news networks. Transparency and truly balanced reporting of events are necessary to ensure that the purpose of journalism remains "to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.” As members of a profession, journalists shoulder a heavy burden to ensure that their reporting provides the essential pieces of information so that each member of society can make their assessment without being led to a predetermined conclusion fed by biased or partisan reporting.
Journalists must report the facts without a partisan leaning. Of course, as is the case with all members of our society, they are entitled to their opinions. Nevertheless, in their profession, an opinion should be saved for their personal dialogue and not be evident through their reporting as a professional journalist.
According to a 2018 Pew Research study, television remains the most relied upon method for staying abreast of news, but for the first time, social media outpaced printed news sources. In a society that remains connected to the internet much of the day, through either personal computers or smartphones, the growing reliance on social media for news is not a surprise. But, this dependence, combined with the overwhelming confidence society has in the validity of reporting and the ease at which foreign actors can insert disinformation, “begs the question of the extent of regulation and self-regulation of companies providing these services.”
As the platform that is increasingly relied upon for information, internet providers and social media platforms are integral to the quality control aspect of information spread in the digital realm. As such, they must work diligently to identify false or misleading stories, especially those that work to further divide and weaken our society. Eliminating these types of narratives is a level of censorship that may be inappropriate and call into question the platforms’ moral or ethical judgments. However, a visible label attached to these types of posts will work to warn consumers of the flawed messaging conducted. Additionally, clearly identifying the source of the information will further enable the consumer's critical thinking process to validate or assess accuracy and relevance.
As James Madison so simply and elegantly proclaimed during our country’s founding, “a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.” Just as necessary today as in the early years of our Republic, the public education system plays a vital role in providing the populace with the knowledge and tools, not only to identify false or misleading information but to seek out absolute truth in all matters of concern.
The public education system in the United States provides citizens with the necessary means to navigate life and work towards achieving their individual life goals. Gaining the ability to assess the quality of the information presented is a crucial component of this endeavor. Critical thinking, "the disciplined art of ensuring that you use the best thinking you are capable of in any set of circumstances," is an essential skill to develop throughout life. Still, the foundation of it must be established through early childhood education.
Students must be given the tools necessary to assess the accuracy and truthfulness of the information that they are presented, whether online or in personal discourse. In today’s hyper-connected world with unprecedented access to information, our youth must be provided with a foundation of knowledge that encourages skepticism without creating cynics.
Perhaps the most significant role to be played in the successful mitigation of ideological subversion is that of every individual within American society. We are the last line of defense, and in so being, are the final arbiter of what information gets accepted and disseminated, and what gets disregarded and deleted from our memory altogether. Personal responsibility or the "willingness to both accept the importance of standards that society establishes for individual behavior and to make strenuous personal efforts to live by those standards,” is an indispensable component of successfully navigating an information environment ripe with disinformation. But, personal responsibility alone will not arm an individual consumer to the degree necessary. Critical thinking, introduced in elementary level education and then reinforced throughout one’s educational tenure, must be an individual’s default setting when receiving and processing information. Through well-executed critical thinking, and by it, learning to question first and to accept only after careful analysis, the individual consumer will possess the tools necessary to act responsibly and for the benefit of society as a whole.
The American population, as evidenced through the much-publicized campaign to divide and weaken our society throughout the 2016 presidential campaign season, is faced with a persistent and persuasive information warfare campaign continuously. Although only becoming mainstream in recognition within the last few years, the concept was initially devised by Soviet agents using ideological subversion to weaken our democracy through division, a diminished sense of trust in our government and its institutions, and using combinations of disinformation and misinformation to make absolute truth nearly impossible to recognize. Through active measures, the Soviet Union unleashed an information warfare campaign on the United States that, to this day, despite the eventual dissolution of the USSR, began a chain of events within American society that continues to have adverse effects on our unity, cohesion, democratic processes, and national security.
The foundation laid by Soviet active measures became the logical starting point for the Russian Federation's internet-based campaign that began in earnest as late as 2014. Although the means of infiltration changed drastically, from written form and word of mouth with limited distribution to internet-based with seemingly unlimited distribution, the intended purpose remained consistent with those of their Soviet predecessors. As demonstrated daily, through our entrenched political divides and polarization that many argue is tearing our society apart, the threat to our national security is undeniable.
Mitigating the effects of ideological subversion is a whole of society effort, which can be achieved through a concerted campaign involving the government, journalists, internet providers and social media outlets, educators, and consumers or individual members of society. As a nation, we must come together as one body, led by the nonpartisan recognition of the threat by our elected leaders, and armed with a well-established means of critical thinking and an acceptance of each individual's responsibility in the effort. Increasing our trust in the professionalism of journalists, earned through unbiased reporting of facts, will reestablish journalism as the most trusted source for newsworthy information. Furthermore, internet providers and social media outlets must recognize the role they play to limit, or at least identify information warfare narratives at work on their platforms.
Through an apolitical and comprehensive whole of society strategy, the effects of ideological subversion can be mitigated. Although the battle for our minds will likely never cease, recognition of its existence and the identification of its methods will arm our government institutions, corporate information sharing entities, and individual citizens with the tools necessary to lessen the acceptance and spread of misleading and destructive narratives within our society.
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