Information Warfare isn’t Russian – It’s American as Apple Pie

Erick Waage and David V. Gioe

Both pundits and the American public are still seeking to understand the information-related events that occurred during 2016 Presidential Election and probably will be for some time. However, the US Intelligence Community and many other expert organizations such as the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike have indicted Information Warfare elements subordinate to Russian President Vladimir Putin as working to both undermine American confidence in its democratic institutions and tilt the scales in favor of one candidate. Though the impact of an effective information warfare campaign may be visible more rapidly in the information age, the principles of information warfare and the political psychology and weaponized narratives that underpin it are timeless. Information warfare is not new, but developments in information technology have enabled it to deliver its payloads vaster and over a much wider network. Looking to Putin’s intelligence apparatus is not to witness the genesis of political information warfare. In fact, the United States was birthed in a stew of information, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda projected by competing entities both internally and externally. Thus, instead of looking at the apparent success of Russian intelligence in the recent election as the perfected form of information warfare, it is worth considering colonial and revolutionary America to appreciate the historical precedent and perspective. Indeed, at one point in its history, Americans were actually quite effective at information warfare, and we can look to one artisan in particular to understand this lost art.

Out of Context Tweets and Selective Editing Is Not New

Information warfare spins faster in the 21st century, but it is not new, novel or unprecedented, and it actually proved effective at inspiring a generation of American patriots. Many readers are likely familiar with Paul Revere’s 1770 engraving of “The Bloody Massacre in King-Street,” which is a ham-fisted graphical depiction of the Boston Massacre taken largely out of context to rile up the citizenry of Boston - and the rest of the American colonies - against the British Army they were hosting (or, being occupied by, depending on one’s view). Revere and the “Sons of Liberty” had a specific political problem them were trying to solve. Their agitations against their British masters were going painfully slowly since the introduction and then hasty repeal of the hated Stamp Act five years earlier. It seemed that an armed revolution might never come. The majority of Americans were comfortable as subjects of the Crown and felt they had much to lose for uncertain gain by the shedding of British blood. Further, the animosity felt toward the British forces was largely localized in New England.

The Sons of Liberty needed an effective caricature of their view of British atrocities in order to further expand their political following into the other colonies further south. Looking at the tools in his vocational toolbox -- a silversmith by trade -- Revere struck the lopsided engraving, including a short poem to ensure the vituperative intent was not misinterpreted, three weeks after the event occurred. Essentially, Revere produced the modern-day equivalent to a string of 140 characters, tendentious tweets, carefully edited to send the right message, and included a photoshopped picture. From there, and capitalizing on the zeitgeist, the engraving was rapidly reproduced in pamphlets and circulated - colonial “retweet” - amongst Boston’s network of public houses and news outlets. Though the broad-brush elements of the engraving are largely accurate, most importantly the lives that were lost in the event, the fact that a mob, potentially tending toward violence, comprised of dozens of rioting “Patriots” armed with clubs and throwing stones, pressing in on eight panicked British soldiers, was clearly overlooked - or selectively edited out - in Patriot messaging. This was information let loose in the public arena to further a particular political point, a specific point of view, and intended to be a call for action with those who found resonance with it.

This episode not only vividly illustrates the power of publishing a selective - even seductive - punchy political narrative, but the conclusion to the episode months later also offers a glimpse of one way to combat such information war. Specifically, a skeptical mind, systematic investigation, a firm stance against base instincts and the siren call of what one wants to hear or see, a hard look at the facts from several angles and sources, and occasionally due process of law. Boston lawyer and future US President John Adams agreed to take this unpopular case and defend both the British soldiers who fired the shots and their commanding officer (in separate trials as a legal strategy). Both relying on, and burnishing, his reputation for personal integrity, diligence, brilliance, and sense of fairness, Adams used logic, collected evidence, and offered clinical analysis to convince a skeptical jury of Boston residents that there was in fact no murderous rampage and certainly no massacre perpetrated that cold night. Notably, although Adams crafted an effective counter-narrative to dispute Revere’s version of events, he did not make equally spurious counter-accusations. In an era of “fake news” and political echo-chambers on social media, Adams’ approach can provide a useful example of how, with critical thought, audiences need not be so susceptible to Information Warfare.

Targeting Confidence in Government Institutions

Fledging as it was, America’s early central government, printed currency to gain credibility as a self-regulating and independent nation. Using a combination of information and economic warfare, the British counterfeited mass quantities of the Continental currency as an attack vector on American economic vulnerability. Using artificially induced inflation, Britain sought to both undermine the viability of the colonial economy and inspire individuals within that economy to reject the currency - and by extension the legitimacy - of the colonies’ competing government. Britain’s counterfeiting of the Continental dollar was so successful that of the $200 million dollars printed in 1779, inflation had eroded almost all its value by 1781. However, a combination of American resolve, luck, and French vengeance eventually thwarted Britain’s counterfeiting efforts.

In conflicts hot or cold, targeting the confidence of individuals in the integrity of their governmental institutions is a timeless strategy. Russia’s recent, but not unprecedented, information warfare campaign seemed to inspire some doubt in a portion of the American population to the integrity of its political process. Whereas the British weaponized the vulnerable paper currency as legal tender in early America to pursue their intended outcome, the Russians have weaponized the personal nature of mobile devices and social media to send their intended message and seek their intended political outcome. Pant pockets that once stored Continental dollars, the reminder of a weak and fledgling government, now store smartphones, the reminder of a democratic process in question some 240 years later. Information warfare campaigns often target nations or institutions, but they do so by playing on the prejudices, bias, fears or perceptions of the individuals that comprise them.

Information Security Supports Reputation Security

Sensitive personal information, whether it’s stored on a digital server or on linen paper, when weaponized can damage one’s reputation, provide material for blackmail, and diminish the potential future influence of a political adversary. President George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, then a powerful Federalist, fell victim to the modern equivalent of Wikileaks. It began between 1791 and 1792, when Hamilton, a married man, started an affair with a married woman, Mary Reynolds. There was a great deal of written communication discussing the affair, however Hamilton had essentially ceded control, or what we today might consider administrative privileges, of those communications to his mistress’ husband, James Reynolds, who accepted the affair quietly in return for money. Shortly after, James Reynolds was imprisoned for forgery and called upon Hamilton who refused to secure his freedom. Consequently, Reynolds reached out to Hamilton’s political enemies for succor and the letters fell into the hands of Hamilton’s key rivals in the Republican Party including future presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. However, the political situation would need to develop to truly for the Republicans to exploit the value of this personal, sensitive information.

After the public wounding of Jefferson by a searing Hamilton essay in 1796, a Republican information campaign was launched to diminish Hamilton’s political reputation. The campaign’s death-stroke was dealt when the letters between Mary Reynolds and Hamilton were published in a proto-muckraker pamphlet. The pamphlet also promoted the false accusation that Hamilton was involved in a corrupt speculation scheme. This placed Hamilton in a situation where that if he refuted both accusations, the affair could be easily proven true thus insinuating that the corruption accusation was also true. Therefore, to preserve his reputation against the corruption accusation, Hamilton was forced to make an embarrassing apology to the public for his adultery, thereby extinguishing any of his future opportunities to hold public office. Hamilton’s political fall from influence was thus precipitated by his lack of information security and the capitalization upon it by those with a competing political agenda.  

Recently, poor information security has enabled state-sponsored advanced persistent threats to gain access to sensitive party information that proved detrimental to the information owners’ reputations if released to the public. For instance, the hack of the US Office of Personnel Management between 2014 and 2015 compromised the sensitive personal information of 18 million previous and current federal employees and members of the US military. This personal, and at times embarrassing, information is provided to the US government as a prerequisite for a security clearance and access to classified information. With the Russian espionage term “kompromat” (exploitable compromising material) entering the American political lexicon in early 2017, we may have given a Russian name to something that has also been - and continues to be - an American political dark art as well.

Weaponized Information in the throes of Technological Change

Observers knowledgeable of both American and international history might tend to roll their eyes with the latest media pronouncement of what is “new,” “novel,” or “unprecedented”; technology has changed and circumstances differ, but human nature remains as it ever was.  The allure of half-truths that we want to hear, the selective inclusion of evidence, a closed mind to different points of view, and a lack of critical thinking have been shown to be national security challenges as complex, insidious, and dangerous as terrorism or even conventional warfare.  Indeed, states choose to employ information, economic, or cyber warfare precisely because of how effective they can be. Used in the context of, or complement to, conventional warfare, these tools can play even further outsized roles in the course of human events. In the colonial era, information - fake, edited, or accurate - traveled only as fast as a horse could race or ship could sail. Today, information now travels instantaneously to billions of nodes across the world. It isn’t nailed to a church door, printed from an engraving, whispered in public houses, or set to familiar musical tunes for ease of conveyance. It comes into our smartphones, to our computers, to our social media feeds, and gets reproduced in media outlets of varying repute. However, although the means and methods have changed, the desire to distort and control information for political purposes remain the same. 

Dr. David V. Gioe is an assistant professor of History at the U.S. Military Academy and History Fellow for the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. Erick Waage is an Army Cyber Operations officer at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header image: Henry Mosler, "The Birth of the Flag" (1911)