One Nation, Under Attack

12 mins read

Over 100,000 Americans died in a pandemic our president chose to ignore.

Yet, large numbers of Americans believe the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax, and they are aggressively breaking the rules designed to protect us from the spread of the virus.

Why is this happening?

Information warfare became a hot topic in the United States shortly after Trump took office, but as a concept, it is hard to understand. How can people in Moscow or Vietnam use bots to convince people in the United States to make decisions that destroy their lives?

It seems outlandish. But it’s not new.

Everything I know about espionage I learned from Mission Impossible (which means I know almost nothing). It was premised on a team of covert operatives that used disinformation, deception, and staged scenarios to achieve their agency’s goals, which suggested a general public awareness of “perception management” or “reflexive control” in Cold War America.

Most of the public information regarding information warfare uses the dense academic language of specialists. In writing this piece, I simplified the language and paraphrased quotes. I strive for accuracy, but translations are rarely perfect; the reference material is available for download at the end of the post.

Russia views mass media as an arm of the armed forces.

What is information warfare, as defined by Russia? To paraphrase the Russian Ministry of Defense:

Information War is the confrontation between two or more states to damage institutions and resources by undermining political, economic, and social systems with a psychological attack so massive it destabilizes a nation and its government.”

Russia’s Information Warfare

A massive psychological attack.

Russian Facebook ads

Americans who think the Russian attack on the 2016 election was merely “meddling” to sow chaos are wrong.

Putin spent years preparing to meddle, and the Russian attack continues into 2020 with co-ordinated attempts to sabotage our coronavirus pandemic response. These are explicit acts of ongoing aggression.

What is reflexive control? According to former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa, writing in the New York Times, reflexive control is a Russian tactic based on psychological manipulation. “The idea is to feed your adversary a set of assumptions that will produce a predictable response,” she writes, which allows you to “control the narrative, and ultimate outcome, in your favor.” In other words, you can convince your enemy to reflexively act against his own interests. (See “A Personal Experience” below for an example of how reflexive control works.)

The concept of reflexive control emerged in the 1950s when Soviet scientists searched for ways to optimize the use of computer technology and cybernetics for the military. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said the Soviet Union would destroy the United States from within. He clearly had reflexive control in mind.

Russia studied the United States and continued to analyze our strengths, weaknesses, and divisions after the end of the Cold War. As an observer, Russia potentially knows Americans better than we know ourselves.

To achieve reflexive control, you must study the enemy, know how the enemy thinks.

A Personal Experience

How do Russia’s lies distort your perceptions of reality?

In 1986, right-wing activist Lyndon LaRouche, Jr., successfully launched Proposition 64. This proposition:

[D]eclares that AIDS is an infectious, contagious and communicable disease and that the condition of being a carrier of the HTLV-III virus is an infectious, contagious and communicable condition. Requires both be placed on the list of reportable diseases and conditions maintained by the director of the Department of Health Services. Provides that both are subject to quarantine and isolation statutes and regulations. Provides that the Department of Health Services personnel and all health officers shall fulfill the duties and obligations set forth in specified statutory provisions to preserve the public health from AIDS.”

The men of the Castro thought the state of California was ready to round us up and send us to camps. That year I heard a rumor, later confirmed by Dan Rather: the U.S. government — specifically the Pentagon — created the AIDS virus to kill blacks and gays.

I believed the story and hated my government for the suffering it caused. But the story was a Soviet fabrication, a lie; disinformation designed to incite paranoia and mistrust among Americans who had reason to believe the worst.

As a youth, I had become a gay activist because I had faith in my government’s commitment to reason and justice, and its courage to one day admit the mistake of discriminating against me. As a reflexive reaction to Russia’s lie, however, I lost faith in my government and viewed everything it did with suspicion, and for a short time, even stopped voting. The government restored my faith on June 26, 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court approved same-sex marriage.

Read the story of how Russia made this and other lies go viral before social media.

Prop. 64 lost, btw.

During the Cold War, hundreds of salacious and bogus headlines appeared around the world, part of a covert playbook of Russian disinformation used to undermine the United States. (NBC News)

Russia uses insight gathered about our intellectual and regional differences to model our decision-making process. Russia can then target specific groups with the half-truths and lies most likely to provoke a reflexive decision that benefits Russia at our expense.

A Russian Facebook page for Woke Blacks
A Russian Facebook ad for Southern Heritage

Insight is called “reflex.” The side with the most “reflex” wins.

The Russian Federation is described in most of the journals I read as a corrupt capitalist country controlled by oligarchs, the Russian mob, and remnants of the Soviet Union’s KGB.

President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent trained in psychological warfare, has said that Russia’s approaches to conflicts between nations will “be based on intellectual superiority.”

Intellectual superiority = reflex.

Russia used several methods to profile Americans. This 2018 video published by the Wall Street Journal describes the profiling of African Americans in 2014.

Intelligence services are interested in personal information because they’re trying to find a weak point, and trying to find ways of making this person do what they need done. If you can insert false or misleading information into a government agency’s decision-making process, or into a policy maker’s decision-making process or even a voter’s decision-making process, you can have an impact on how the United States reacts to Russia or to other powers around the world.”

Former Special Agent Leo Taddeo

In early 2014, Cambridge Analytica spent $1 million harvesting millions of Facebook accounts to build a system that could profile individual U.S. voters and target them with personalized political advertisements.

Anti-Semitic propaganda produced by Russia’s Internet Research Agency
Anti–Black Lives Matter propaganda produced by Russia’s Internet Research Agency

In this 2018 video, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie describes how Cambridge Analytica turned Facebook “Likes” into a political tool.

LIKE if you agree

Reflexive control is most effective when targets are unaware of it. Even when lies are exposed, the effects linger, fueling division and conspiracy theories. If a nation’s people are extremely divided, Russia’s lies are used by the opposing sides to intensify political conflicts.

As example of its impact, 49% of voters recently polled by Gallup approved of Trump’s performance as president despite his mishandling of a pandemic that has so far killed over 100,000 Americans.

The simplest way to understand reflexive control is to think of it as a nonstop marketing campaign on speed, designed to convince people to self destruct.

Russia views civilians as legitimate targets, so we are suffering the effects of an ongoing psychological attack — all of us.

The most effective way to protect yourself is to be aware that you are a target. Take a close look at the tweet that pisses you off? Is it divisive? Does it use loaded language? When you read a story,  notice the language, verify the source, mistrust breaking stories without links to credible sources. The New York Times and MSNBC are credible sources. My blog, Art by Rob Goldstein, isn’t – at least, not for verifying a news story.

,A pro–Bernie Sanders appeal to the LGBTQ community from Russia’s Internet Research Agency

Russian operatives are working to subvert Joe Biden. They will post smears and racially charged content designed to go viral. Question content about Biden that causes a reflexive or intensely negative emotional reaction. Again, know you are a target, and that all of your vulnerabilities can and will be exploited.

Below is the downloadable source material for this post:

Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military

Cognitive Bias and Reflexive Control

Handbook of Russian Information Warfare

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