The Coronavirus pandemic is becoming a watershed moment for how states tussle on the international stage. Spies, special operations and high-stakes negotiations are no longer the tools of choice. Instead,…
Amil Khan is the founder of Valent Projects, a digital communications agency for social impact. Until recently, Amil was a UK government senior strategic communications expert with a special focus on international conflict. Amil advised several UK government departments as well as senior decision makers from governments across Middle East and Africa. His work has ranged from countering Disinformation to supporting complex socio-economic policy shifts. A former Chatham House associate fellow, Amil came to government after an award-winning career in journalism, working for the BBC and Reuters as a foreign correspondent and documentary film maker focusing on violent insurgencies in Iraq and Sudan. Since Valent's founding in late 2019, Amil has designed complex online research projects and developed and implemented data-based digital strategy for election candidates.
In April 2017, I was sitting in an office with Syrian rights activists watching, in real time, as the Syrian regime and Russia manipulated a second US president.
The current discussion about disinformation is focused very firmly on Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum. As critical as both issues are to the future of international stability, the emotion vested in both topics obscures rather than illuminates the impact disinformation has on the way influence is being wielded on the global stage.
Somewhere between the United States (US)-led invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings against dictatorial rule, something fundamental in the way global audiences receive and react to information changed. Political insurgents had long been watching, waiting for a chance to challenge the established power of their enemies. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s number two at the time, famously declared in the early years of the 21st century that “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media”.  As a Middle East reporter, I saw the effort the group put into trying to circumvent traditional media and reach its intended audiences directly.
Russia had also been watching. From 2013 to 2017, I worked with Syrian activists hoping to remove the corrupt and abusive regime in Damascus. My time working on Syria was bookended by highly sophisticated disinformation campaigns that melded diplomatic, media and military activity in order to achieve real-world outcomes. Examining the techniques used by Russia (and adopted by other actors since) raises questions about the measures policy makers are hoping will return us to a simpler era.
The two most sophisticated Russian disinformation operations I observed came in response to the Damascus regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Russia’s efforts in both cases is not surprising when you consider that the Kremlin’s investment in the Assad regime was most seriously threatened – not by the military or political efforts of its adversaries – but by international blowback to its ally’s use of poison gas.
Between 2013 and 2017, Russia had hugely developed its techniques in line with changes in the global media environment. Earlier efforts focused on manipulating established media outlets, or at least leaning on their credibility, while the later campaign largely bypassed established media in favour of fringe outlets and social media networks. In both cases, however, the underlying strategic approach displayed a keen understanding that Western decision makers will ultimately be constrained by popular opinion; while the implementation plan recognised that Western media systems can be gamed or bypassed.
On the morning of the 21st August 2013, I was told by distraught Syrian colleagues that the regime had used poison gas on sleeping civilians in an area besieged by government forces and the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. The Syrian opposition, advised by individuals, such as myself, with backgrounds in journalism or political lobbying, called on locals to send through videos showing proof of the regime’s actions, which were forwarded on to journalists covering the story. The Kremlin was quick to establish an alternative depiction of events. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists the rebels had used the weapons on their own families in the hope of provoking a Western military response.  Russia’s effort seemed doomed to failure. Responding to the weight of facts emerging from the ground, most media outlets concluded the regime was guilty. A Western military response seemed inevitable.
When I first noticed photos and comments purporting to be from ordinary Americans calling on their government not to come to the “aid of Al Qaeda in Syria”, I wasn’t unduly concerned.  However, the posts seemed to become more numerous as the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) House of Commons geared up for a vote on military action against the regime. On the morning of the vote, journalists, political analysts and even political figures started mentioning they had heard that respected US news agency Associated Press (AP) was reporting that the rebels were actually responsible. In several public statements, Lavrov coolly questioned the Western focus on military action when the “evidence is not something revolutionary. It’s available on the internet”. 
It was days after the government of David Cameron lost the Commons vote and the Obama administration climbed down from the threat of military action that we were able to understand what was happening. AP had not found that the rebels were responsible for killing their own sleeping children. Instead, a little-known outlet called Mint Press operating from the US with assistance from a supporter of the regime had printed an article from a stringer who had travelled to Syria and repeated claims he had heard whilst there. As an Arabic speaker, he asked a friend – who also sometimes freelanced for the AP – to help with copy editing. Mint Press very prominently played up the tenuous connection, and other outlets, online trolls and regime supporters obscured the issue further until social media Chinese whispers transformed a rumour into a popularly-believed ‘fact’.
Of course, it’s not possible to determine what part any specific manipulative technique played in the final outcome of the situation. What is clear, however, is that the Kremlin had realised winning the battle for popular perceptions meant winning wars. It was also clear that Russia had been able to game Western news media through a very sophisticated understanding of how stringers work, how to pitch to editors and the way information moves between outlets - morphing slightly as it does so according to the editorial policy of individual websites, newspapers and channels. For context, it is important to understand that Russia had developed and successfully exploited an intimate understanding of the weaknesses of free media – of which it has little domestic experience of itself.
The second time Russia needed to bail out the Syrian regime from the possibility of direct and catastrophic Western military intervention, the White House had a new occupant and the news environment looked radically different. Russia’s experience seeding narratives and moving them between different information eco-systems was put to good use.
On the morning of the 4th April 2017, Syrian social media networks exploded with harrowing photos and videos of men, women and children choking to death as they convulsed on the ground. Western journalists raced to uncover what had happened, much as they did four years previously. Similarly, Syrian activists raced to find them footage and eye witnesses in the hope they would be able to prove beyond doubt what was happening on the ground. Activists expected to have to counter spurious claims on news media. However, the Russian playbook had evolved. It now didn’t need traditional media.
On the afternoon of the day of the attack, Al Masdar News (AMN), an English-language outlet run by the Syrian regime, published an article that presented several arguments that suggested claims the regime carried out the attack were false. The arguments used techniques such as ‘foreknowledging', to misrepresent time stamps on social media posts as ‘proof’ timelines did not add up, as well as claiming various online comments by a collection of unrelated actors ‘proved’ the mainstream narrative was false. Ordinarily, such an article would be lost amongst the cacophony of online argument. However, the initial article was not meant to achieve the desired impact itself. It was merely a seed.
The next day, the AMN article was reprinted, quoted heavily or copied without attribution across a number of conspiracy-orientated ‘news’ sites such as Global Research, 21st Century Wire and Russophile’s Blog. Amongst the sites that used information from the AMN article without attribution was the infamous InfoWars. By the time the alternative narrative had reached the Alex Jones-fronted outlet, it had developed into an anti-Soros conspiracy.
InfoWars is itself highly influential in the US right-wing news eco-system. Data analysis based on link sharing in 2016 shows it is more often quoted in US right-wing networks than the Washington Post and NBC News are in centrist or left-wing circles. However, InfoWars was not the ultimate aim. Rather the outlet was a gateway into far more pervasive and influential networks - the right-wing US social-media sphere. InfoWars and Alex Jones himself (or someone running his account) tweeted the article.  The article was then picked up and amplified by bots – automated Twitter accounts – using a shared hashtag. Many retweeted the article hundreds of times in a two-day period. The final step of the strategy involved high-profile right-wing figures – the American equivalents of UK’s Katie Hopkins – retweeting the article, but also – crucially – repeating the arguments and talking points during their many appearances on traditional media platforms. Ultimately, the idea that a huge conspiracy involving Al Qaeda, George Soros and Western governments acting in unison became a plausible counter argument and was treated with equal weight to facts being checked by international organisations and trustworthy news organisations.
The impact of the campaign can be gauged by the fact that Donald Trump’s instinctive reaction to punish the Syrian regime through airstrikes led to members of his own base protesting outside the White House and threatening to withdraw their support on right-wing media platforms. 
The difference in tactics used in 2013 and 2017 shows that the ongoing rise of socially distributed and consumed news and the fall in influence of traditional news outlets has made it easier to influence events by manipulating the information key audiences consume. In 2013, it was still felt necessary to lean on AP’s credibility, to engage a real-life journalist and persuade him of the merits of publishing an incredulous story. In 2017, bots and pliable news outlets were enough. There was no need to risk engaging established organisations or to work around their editorial policies. There was also little need to deploy expensive Facebook advertising of the sort examined in recent inquiries in the UK and US.
Like other sorts of arms races, these techniques are being closely watched by other actors. Recent tension between Gulf countries and Iran has resulted in an explosion of fake accounts and coordinated hashtag promotion in Arabic.  Facebook also recently closed down ‘inauthentic’ accounts it said were being used by India and Pakistan in their own political tussles. 
Disinformation works because it fits within the grain of a new reality. Two key underlying factors in its success are the increased relative importance of mass groups of individuals, and the need to understand the world through the lens of those individuals. Recognising both these factors is vital for any organisation wishing to have any sort of influence. So far, we have seen malign actors recognise these factors and put them to use. The question for those working to lift living standards, increase the remit of international human rights, and achieve other positive outcomes is how to ethically and morally adapt their methods to the same new reality.
Amil Khan, an associate fellow at Chatham House, is a former Reuters journalist and government adviser. He now runs Valent Projects, an agency focused on the challenge posed by the new information environment.
Photo by Randall Munroe, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.
 David Esnor, Al Qaeda letter called ‘chilling’ - Al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi: Prepare for U.S. to leave Iraq soon, CNN World, October 2005, http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/10/11/alqaeda.letter/
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 Maxwell Tani, Some of Trump’s more hardline online supporters are slamming him over striking Syria, Business Insider, April 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com.au/trump-syria-srike-media-supporters-split-2017-4
 Marc Jones and Alexei Abrahams, A plague of Twitter bots is roiling the Middle East, The Washington Post, June 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/06/05/fighting-the-weaponization-of-social-media-in-the-middle-east/?utm_term=.928397c5e364
 Aditya Kalra and Saad Sayeed, Facebook deletes accounts linked to India’s Congress party, Pakistan military, Reuters, April 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/facebook-accounts-india/facebook-deletes-accounts-linked-to-indias-congress-party-pakistan-military-idUSKCN1RD1R2[post_title] => International Affairs in the Disinformation Age [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => international-affairs-in-the-disinformation-age [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-09-24 11:17:03 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-09-24 11:17:03 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.org.uk/?p=3492 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 1 [filter] => raw ))