War of shadows: The psychological and media dimension of future clashes

The Soviets called it “the shadow theatre”, i.e. the set of  psychological warfare techniques of the time, in the Cold War world.

Maskirovka, in particular, e.g. everything is camouflage, deception, real psychological warfare, disinformation.

In fact, if we analyze the psywar techniques currently used, we realize that we are still at the Cretaceous period.

No sectoral influence operations, no action on subjects or public targets, little knowledge of the new discoveries of social psychology and biopsychic evolution.

The scenario of Western psywar operations is still not very brilliant.

Obviously, explaining to the Defense Ministers of Western countries what these operation are about is a very difficult mission that few people would be able to accomplish successfully.

Actually, nowadays the old maskirovka is not the cover, the shell of real operations, but its true essence.

Just as today’s industrial production is, above all, communication, induction of a certain behaviour, identification of a target of customers, development of a product that meets their psychological and symbolic needs, currently also war is above all maskirovka well before being military and destructive struggle.

Nobody cares where engines are produced, which are now all the same, but certainly the market is interested in the symbolism of goods, in its evocative potential and in the ability to define the status of those who buy them.

Furthermore, in an old CIA manual, the Soviet “active measures” were defined and classified as follows: a) the Center gives the green light for a strategic disinformation campaign; b) the news, which is never entirely true or entirely false, is prepared and packed; c) the dezinformatsja news is disseminated abroad so as to later check the results.

The results are eminently practical: the “Euromissile battle” narrated by Michel Tatu, the long end of the Vietnam war, the management of Soviet foreign policy after the Helsinki Treaty.

But that is not all: currently, the intelligence mainly consists of economic effects, which are continuous and complex. The shift from the Soviet “active measures” and from the political-military clash to the industrial one marks a large part of the post-Cold War period.

All true psychological warfare is active and proactive, but  the whole Western warfare doctrine is defensive and passive,  which means it does not exist.

Hence it is not necessary to wage war manumilitari, for the additional reason that the enemy’s enterprises and infrastructure will be good also for us. At a time when the value chains are now fully global, when cars are manufactured in Spain for the German market and in China for the Indian one – not to mention drugs, the active ingredients of which are produced in India for the French market and even in Mexico, but for the Canadian one.

All contemporary intelligence, however, is targeted to the economic and technological resources of the possible enemy and operates – 24 hours a day – on the Web and also in the traditional media machinery.

Hence, those who win are not those who have the best weapons or the best products, but those who creates the best and most convincing storytelling around them.

It is therefore useful to see how the old “shadow theatre” is being changed and perfected.

This is what is needed in a situation of actual integration of all large companies, not only global but also national ones.

In the field of social media, for example, the most widespread tactics are those of “selective censorship”, or the hacking of sensitive information, which becomes hegemonic in the common discourse, or even the manipulation of the Internet search algorithms, with a view to linking some content to other one, in a completely unreasonable way.

30-40% of the news that can be found online is designed to deceive at least some of the readers.

Deception: not to mention something and tell the truth about everything else or, instead, to create a storytelling in which real things appear surrounded by completely fake data.

How so?

By changing the perception of facts, or the news about the facts, with strong or weak adjectives and nouns, or with universal symbols, and even with references to people or things of great fame, either negative or positive.

15% is the average quota of experts taken out by the automated texts that can be found on the World Wide Web, while about 60% of all readers are usually put on the spot by the texts and news available on the Web.

The Canadian Services have provided this statistics.

The operating techniques are now known to everybody: a) the Bot, a software that automatically operates on the Web, by selecting the content; b) the countermessage, indeed a message that offers the “true” or “fake” version of what has been said previously; 3) the Denial of Service (DOS), the temporary disruption of the Web for a certain user, and the  old Disinformation; 4) the Noise that covers the relevance of the data sequence useful for understanding a certain message; 5) the Search Engine Optimization (SEO), the optimization of the number of visitors to any website.

On the technical and ideological levels, there are other online practices that are used daily by the authors of Disinformation: a) the BOTs coordinated with each other, which create a series of cross-references that reinforce the (fake) news that is to be spread; b) the use of false Internet “domains” in which websites and content similar to those of the “enemy” are created; c) the use of e-mails or websites that are pirated and disseminate news opposite to those that the primary user would like to spread.

Contradiction, lie, defamation.

We are still at the old theme of the aria “La Calunnia” (“slander is a little breeze”) of the Barber of Seville, as well as the “flower duet” of Madama Butterfly, but all with a firepower that Rossini or Puccini could not even imagine.

There are two profound and conceptual limits to these operations. The first is that, in spite of all possible technological refinement, the basic psychological mechanisms are always the same: personal defamation by sexual or other means- just think of the “Tangentopoli” operation in Italy (the judiciary probe known as Bribesville)  at the end of the Cold War and, finally, of the elites’ structural inability to separate wheat from chaff,  news from disinformation.

If we do something to help a government and then it falls into the trap of dezinformatsja, everything is useless. And this has often happened.

Ministers who tell you that they read it in the newspaper  “Corriere della Sera” (bravo!) or that it was whispered to them by some intelligence agents without any qualification – and hence you need to check whether, as Harlequin, they are Servants of two Masters. It has often happened.

Hence, in many cases, currently the maskirovka strikes back and negatively changes the decision-making of those who have carried it out.  The ruling classes that know it can save themselves, while the others and their countries are bound to become “servant of two masters” and, in any case, irrelevant.

There are also the undesired effects.

For example, it happened that the reputation of a ruling class was tarnished by convincing citizens that all politicians were “dishonest and thieving” and later we needed to stabilize a country in disarray and adrift without a guide, possibly recovering some of those who had been dismissed as “thieves”, thus creating a cognitive dissonance with the previous message conveyed.

However, how can we optimally develop the possibility of an IT attack (but not necessarily this type of attack only) on the decision-making system and on the public of a target country?

The attack will be successful if, for example, there are no useful sources of good information.

Without a reserve of serious, objective and truthful news and interpretations, the whole public and private system of security and education will fail in the long run.

Another excellent condition to launch an attack is uncertainty: in a phase of financial, geopolitical, technological and even military insecurity, with terrorism any news – regardless of its importance -can generate  innumerable domino effects.

Probably those who maintain uncertainty have a return –  in this case mainly and economic and industrial one.

Nor should we neglect the fact that, if there is a lack of  effective information available, the media channels can be bought and sold, infected by adverse agents and induced to acquire information only from certain sources, which are already compromised.

If the commercial goal is the target and above all the audience, everything becomes possible for a foreign operator with bad intentions.

No country, not even those which control the Web at best, is protected from similar operations.

With a view to keeping the situation under control – and this applies above all to those who deal with State Security – we need, at first,  to ascertain who makes disinformation.

Very often an individual or a private organisation.

Then, obviously, the exact opposite must be done, but  preferably using different mechanisms of action: a similar  and possibly “fake” website in case of a Bot, or a personal attack if we are faced with a press campaign.

Hence never use the same usual means and mechanisms.

Generally, abstract and political motivations should not be overlooked: there are NGOs, States, political parties, and companies that usually keep on misinforming.

And often they are not even traced by the intelligence Services.

Obviously, there are also terrorists – but in this case we are talking about another communication system.

Who can say, for example, that German cars are better than Italian ones? Yet it is common sense, albeit wrong.

Nowadays all the environmental propaganda consists of behaviours that favour some countries and companies instead of others. But no one tells you so.

Indeed, this is the real news.

Fake news to be spread, of course, but also generic discontent and uncertainty.

A mass perception that a great Portuguese poet, Pessoa, would have defined as desassosego (disquiet and restlessness).

Obviously, it is even better to let all disinformation go on, with its parallel and unexpected processes, so as to see who makes it and what goals are pursued.

Usually such operations end quickly, but neither the perpetrator nor the victim knows their effects or duration.

Hence the primary goal of all dezinformacja techniques is  the partial or complete alteration of the perception of reality.

It is therefore essential to understand the divisions within the opponent’s field.

Popular or elitist.

If we believe that all enemies are the same, we operate for their propaganda and any operation of “psychological warfare” is always inhibited to us.

An essential resource in this field is the conspiracy theory.

The field of others is segmented, but the absolute uniqueness of those who generated the content we do not like or that harm us is assumed.

A well-managed conspiracy manages to work well where few other maskirovka techniques do so.

Perfect for simplifying all matters, it immediately identifies the aim of each psywar: to find the enemy, either true or false.

Another procedure is usually to use entities that everybody deems “third parties” to spread messages against the enemy (once again the current ecologism is full of examples in this regard) and then reinforce their message through other information sources: truth comes from repetition and the mind learns not from a single fact or event, or from a single person, but always from what Fritj of Capra called the mental ecosystem.

The human brain is made in such a way that it tends to believe both in repetition, but also in similarity and homogeneity.

Our brain has evolved only among human groups already formed. It is not by chance that, unlike what happens to animals, our brain maturation must take place in a post-natal social, family and group context.

Otherwise – as Nietzsche said – to live alone, one must be either a beastor a god.

Another factor not to be overlooked is that, as in all  Gestalt psychologies, what counts is not only what you see, but also what you do not see.

As in the Rorschach test, the inkblots can be perceived either as a glass or two butterflies, but it is the outline, not the inside of the image that can suggest one answer or the other.

However, how can we counteract such an operation? Denial is always the best answer.

But it is simple and repetitive, always prone to others’ psyops.

We can simply deny having received funding from a certain country.

Mere denial stops the game of cross-references and shadows that would develop if the victim of the operation were to dwell and go into explanations that 87% of the audience – on the Webor even in the old media, never follow. Those who justify themselves are always wrong.

Denial is used to make a quick fix, but it is certainly not a stable and definitive answer.

Another technique is to defame and attack those who make  disinformation.

It works well, but once again it is a mechanism that does not last long.

A disinformation campaign is never opposed with  temporary and limited makeshift interventions and stopgap  measures.

Dezinformatsja is always a potentially endless flow, to which we must respond by creating a state of mind (not  “news”, but a stable and possibly ungrounded mental state) that is always potentially and equally endless.

It should also be added that our intelligence Services know nothing about these things. We are still focused on the  protection of redundant critical infrastructure and possibly even of selected military and information networks. Everything is even too obvious.

Nevertheless, how can we avoid the defamation of one of our most famous chocolate creams in China?

Furthermore no one will be able to tell you what happens when there is defamation against our production system, as well as against our political system, which is, in fact, also a critical infrastructure.

Goodness knows what happened to our rubber before Pirelli’s deal with ChemChina. And it was not China that took the first step.

If we also study the issue of the F-35 fighter that was not acquired by the German Armed Forces, you will also understand the resulting weakness of Chancellor Merkel and her “heir”, as well as the short-lived successes of the Right, which always remains under the threat of being dismissed as neo-Nazi.

The neo-Nazis, however, were still pasture land mainly for the  Eastern and Russian intelligence Services.

Hence using the professional ignorance of our politicians to defame our intelligence Services –  as is currently happening – is certainly a perfectly orchestrated defamation operation.

A cheap politician who uses the intelligence Services to protect himself is like the main character of the “Manuscript Found in Saragossa”, who files the silver ball he will put into the gun to commit suicide.

In a different way and with different effects, Italy is drifting to a condition very similar to Great Britain’s in the  Brexit phase.

A slow and subtle Italian destabilization, with a terrible and useless fragmentation of the voters and the political classes.

Nowadays in Italy there is a sort of geopolitical strike: the country is on the sidelines and reluctant to understand the reality of power relations and national interests.

In the case of the operations carried out by China, however, we have a completely different picture.

It should be recalled that, as early as 2014, China established the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization, chaired directly by Xi Jinping, in  addition to the Cyberspace Administration of China. The  Chinese leaders’ central idea is to make national sovereignty possible in cyberspace.

This is not easy, but it can be achieved with technological hegemony and strategic wisdom.

Hence the importance of Huawei’s 5G  global fight and the concrete possibility of “controlling world innovation”, as some Chinese leaders say.

Therefore, in the “war of shadows”, we currently have to deal with the great influence operations, which are actions of cognitive modification, i.e. actions to change the perceptions, behaviours and decisions of certain target groups, in the country to be influenced, which can be changed to the benefit of the acting Power.

Or even very broad operations, which regard the whole  political audience.

Conversely, the “influence campaigns” are operations carried out by an adverse and alien Power that tend to put together various small-scale and sectoral influence actions, which may have common goals or, in any case, not contradictory and opposed goals.

This means that through “influence operations”, we can influence the actions of the rulings class, as well as all or part of the public in a country, or the activities of an allied country.

Influence actions are always linked to strategic deception and the possibility of exploiting the enemy’s weaknesses, particularly those typical of moralism.

Currently moralism is a tool used by some countries against others.

Hence influence operations are certainly deception, but above all they mark a new Intention, or an Interference.

Nevertheless everything happens in the epistemic chain formed by single individuals, and then in the social or para-social sphere, characterized by the real relations among individuals, the real public sphere, the media, the elites, the “experts”, the scientific and technical system of a country.

Currently all Western media are ever weaker and often not very attentive to influence operations because they are subjected to a very fast change of technologies, as well as a quick commercial trend of the system. We are all market oriented in the short term, and currently all the influence operations made so far exploit above all the technological, legal and economic weaknesses of the various countries to reach their own aims.

The vulnerability of the public is yet another issue. Considering the new technologies, there is not only the possibility for each psywar operator to change the perception of others’ world, but also to do so in a covert way.

This applies to any Internet operator and any millennial kid.

And that is what counts. One hundred “denials”, however developed, are always news.

There is also a psychological problem.

The above mentioned evolution has not provided us with a brain that always seeks the objective truth of facts, but we have a cognitive system that finds an acceptable reality day by day.

Phylogenetically, the conformity to a group is more important than a subjective psychology that always seeks only truth, be it objective or linguistic.

In economics as in politics, free riders always have a hard life. And they are always those who define a new paradigm. Enzo Ferrari invented luxury sports cars against everything and everyone. Some pasta makers in Northern Italy discovered they could sell dried Italian pasta any where in the world.

Not to mention advanced technologies, where Italian companies were bought to be destroyed (Hewlett-Packard with Olivetti, for example) or to be put out of business, or the export of mass technologies, such as Piaggio in India.

Hence we often have to deal with the confirmation bias, i.e.  the psychological tendency to ignore information that goes against accepted beliefs, or with the creation of a protective apparatus against threats to identity and team spirit.

Therefore we have to do with a series of mass influence actions that are now typical:

a) Terrorism. Creation of fear, an essential element of influence operations, but also of the radicalization of certain themes. A primitive, but very effective solution. In this respect, just consider the case of Italy in the 1970s and in the 80s. The sword jihad is a different story, but often not dissimilar to that of “red” terrorism in Europe.

b) The operations of para-State organizations, i.e. criminal structures and vast organized crime. Or do you really think that the international crime organizations have been created and have become powerful on their own, like the Baron  Munchausen, who rescued himself from quicksand by pulling himself out at his own hair? All criminal organizations have always been influence instruments.

c) There are also hackers, who operate divided to strike together. Consciously or not, 78% of them are operators of the Powers that support their projects.

d) Not to mention hackers having only economic goals. After making money they, too, are not aware of the fact  they have resold their data to some countries, but not always those they like.

Hence how can you create a “narrative” for influence operations?

Nowadays you can certainly create a consistent, long, credible and wide-ranging storytelling.

Conversely, “negative” techniques tend to disrupt the narrative over a long period of time.

There is also distraction, the creation of an external objective far from the themes discussed.

Therefore, we propose to create an Agency or a unit of it   dealing with the disruption of influence operations which, before the end of the Cold War, Italy hosted like no other country in the world to later maintain its Kantian “minority status” in the following years.

An Agency that can really carry out influence operations – actively, with no curbs and restraints other than the operational and technical ones.

Therefore, in terms of protection of Italy’s industrial values, patents, as well as “reputation” of the country and its brands, even the less famous ones, we are now almost at death’s door.

Hence it will be good to quickly reverse the course.

Giancarlo Elia Valori