This essay is part of the #WhatIsInformationOperations series, which asked a group of practitioners to provide their thoughts on the subject. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.
Within the U.S. military's complex operating environment, acts committed by either side of a conflict may form a narrative that races out of control instantaneously. Within moments, neighbors call family members, witnesses upload video footage, and tweets trend across social media. At this point, those who wish to manipulate the event can employ social media to shape the narrative for a targeted audience to achieve a desired effect. This manipulation can call others to action, divide a population, or sway opinions against U.S. or coalition efforts. The world saw the effectiveness of such a social cyber-attack during the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. The militaries of the United States and her allies must internalize the lessons from this conflict and enable soldiers and leaders at every level to shape the fight in this new domain of warfare.
The use of social media continues to rise around the world, with Facebook professing an active user population of 1.6 billion people, a population larger than any one country on the planet. This population accounts for almost half of all Internet users, and provides a domain to easily spread both truthful and fabricated information among mass quantities of people. The average Facebook user boasts 330 friends, and, barring any privacy settings by a user, the statements of that use person can directly reach 330 individuals, and from each of those 330 more, and so on, spreading the message like a virus.
While not every post or video will reach all users of various social media platforms, a well-crafted submission in support of a narrative already believed to be true by a target population can quickly gain traction among a target audience and go viral. The concept of solidarity in light of the 2015 Paris attacks is one such example of a message gone viral from Twitter, another popular social media platform designed to communicate one-way short messages to followers. With taglines such as #PrayForParis, millions of people around the world expressed their unity in the wake of the attacks as well as remorse for those who lost loved ones with more than four million related postings within 24 hours of the attack.
This capability to reach thousands or millions of people at near instantaneous speeds is already employed by various state and non-state entities around the world. Businesses use it to market their goods and services, and the Islamic State group uses social media along with their publication Dabiq as a propaganda machine to recruit and reinforce their ideas in an online echo chamber to readers around the world. However, no one enjoyed as much success through the exploitation of social media as Russia in the annexation of Crimea.
During the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Russian government spent more than $19 million to fund 600 people to constantly comment on news articles, write blogs, and operate throughout social media. They intended to sway public and international opinion, overwhelm the voices of dissidents online, and create an image of a population supportive of the annexation. To accomplish this, social cyber attackers appealed to the pro-Russian population of Crimea by spreading rumors of hate and fear. One such rumor involved the crucifixion of a three-year-old child in the public square of Slovyansk by Ukrainian soldiers, but independent sources quickly debunked this story as false.
Despite the falsehood of this story, people believed it as it spread among the population. The supporters of annexation accepted this story as truth because it appealed to their bias against the Ukrainian forces in the area. Pro-Russian cyber-attackers released several similar stories in an attempt to further polarize the population in Crimea. An example of this involved the story of an alleged emergency physician named Igor Rosovsky at the epicenter of the May 2014 Odessa violence who asserted that Ukrainian supporters attacked Crimean nationalists and burned them alive. When “Igor” attempted to treat the nationalists, the Ukrainian fighters stopped him and made disparaging anti-Semitic comments towards him. This Facebook post spread rapidly among Russian social media sites such as Vkontakte, where users shared the story 5,000 times within 24 hours. Again, Western analysts debunked this story, like the Slovyansk crucifixion of a child.
Despite the invalidity of such stories, social media platforms allow a message to reach millions of people faster than ever before. The rate of interactions on these platforms vary from two to 70 interactions per post per 1,000 users. For those attempting to shape a narrative, this platform is one of the fastest ways to spread rumors and generate fear or hatred against their opposition. Teams of social cyber attackers such as those involved in the Russian annexation of Crimea target demographics already sympathetic to their cause and stoke that flame to inspire them to take action.
This call reinforced the Russian strategic narrative throughout the conflict. The state leveraged both traditional and social media through the use of breaking news, blogs from alleged eyewitnesses, and viral videos and stories to reach both older populations and pro-nationalist youth in the region. This deception multiplied as the population polarized itself, while Russian “troll farms,” recruited employees to generate hundreds of social media posts every day in support of the Russian effort.
A significant factor of success for the Russian social cyber attack in Crimea was the opinions of the general public within the region. The ethnically Russian region refused to acknowledge the government of Kiev as legitimate. An overwhelming majority (71.3%) of Crimeans viewed the Russian annexation as leading to a positive impact for the region, while the percentage of Ukrainians outside the region view Russia’s role much more negatively (66.4% disapproval). A receptive target audience allowed attackers to spread the narrative like wildfire among those who supported its stance while simultaneously demonizing those who opposed the Russian annexation.
The scale of the Russian cyber-attack extended far beyond social media platforms in support of shaping the strategic narrative in the region. Distributed Denial of Service attacks against Ukrainian government websites and news outlets, the jamming of Ukrainian naval communications, and Internet Protocol-telephonic attacks on phones of Ukrainian government officials created an information blackout in the region. Within this black-out, pro-annexation actors involved in the region quickly gained and maintained information superiority, as with any other domain of warfare, and dictated the narrative of the region with little interference from outside influencers.
Crimea served as a proving ground for Russian information operations, as well as the larger applications of cyber warfare. It brought the cyber domain to light among the masses and showed social media to the world as a potent weapons system...
The success enjoyed by Russian interests in Crimea came down to three factors. First, cyber attackers and Russian special forces created a communications blackout in the region, cutting them off from the rest of the world. Second, the employment of troll farms and social cyber-attacks to target a designated audience within the region achieved the desired result of polarizing the population in the region. Lastly, with the population polarized to the point of violence, and with limited communication from outside, the annexation came with minimal direct involvement of conventional Russian forces.
Crimea served as a proving ground for Russian information operations, as well as the larger applications of cyber warfare. It brought the cyber domain to light among the masses and showed social media to the world as a potent weapons system in this domain, given the right target (i.e., a previously segregated and sympathetic base of support). From this, the United States should take certain lessons to heart. First, social media can make a significant impact in any future conflict involving the United States, and the U.S. must leverage this platform in its favor. Rapid urbanization on a global scale, especially within developing nations, creates challenges for resources and governance that will spark conflict, such as an inadequate water supply, or a population far too large for the government to effectively control. Within these cities, applied social media can provide a voice of hope for our supporters and attempt to persuade those who do not support U.S. operations in the area. In environments where social media use is prevalent, psychological operations can succeed or fail based on the application of social media.
Soldiers equipped with cameras to record video and audio during engagements within the local population hold the potential to counter social media engagement by the enemy or reinforce previous messages spread by U.S. forces.
The second lesson to take away from the annexation of Crimea is that shaping the narrative should be incorporated within the military decision making process for operations. While Special Operations Forces take the narrative into account during operations, conventional forces typically do not employ assets to effectively influence a population. To remedy this, senior leaders should enable and encourage subordinate units to capture data, such as photographs or video, from the battlefield to use within the cyber domain and shape the narrative. Soldiers equipped with cameras to record video and audio during engagements within the local population hold the potential to counter social media engagement by the enemy or reinforce previous messages spread by U.S. forces.
Lastly, despite the increased potential for responsibility and impact from every soldier on the ground, those soldiers must understand that more eyes are on them now than ever before. Combatants and civilians will watch every action and every movement of American forces, and any faux pas could become breaking news. News, specifically through social media, spreads like a wildfire among connected populations, and rumors or half-truths will emerge due to the natural progression of the story. In such an environment, hostile actors need only to accelerate this progression in their favor. To this end, junior leaders hold the responsibility of making the right decision at the right time and an obligation to take up the mantle of the strategic corporal. With the potential of the entire world watching the actions taken and choices made by each individual, every soldier must understand the second and third-order effects of the decisions they make.
Russia showed the world the effectiveness of social media as a weapon system in the cyber domain. By leveraging the population against one another, it successfully took ground from another sovereign nation without the employment of massed conventional forces. Future conflicts will involve civilian populations as connected, or more connected, as those in Crimea, and the employment of social media will be essential to shaping the narrative of U.S. operations. As the Russian government proved, through proper timing, messaging, and population targeting, social media has the potential to manipulate the outcome of a conflict and win a complex engagement.
Michael Holloway is a U.S. Army Logistician who graduated from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas and is currently attending the Logistics Captain’s Career Course. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: A Russian soldier hold his weapon at Belbek airport in the Crimea region March 4, 2014. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
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