Foreign adversaries have stepped up the use of information warfare to control populations since 2011 and the operations are one of the new threats in the digital age, according to the director of the National Security Agency.
Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, who heads both NSA and Cyber Command, said in remarks last week that both the military and the nation as a whole are taking steps to counter foreign information warfare and to use information operations against adversaries.
The Arab Spring uprisings that began in April 2011 were fueled by social media and the internet and led to the unseating of several governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
“We looked at this as an indicator of how powerful a free and open internet can be in the world, and we looked at this from that lens,” Nakasone said in remarks to a security conference in Aspen, Colorado.
“But I would also say that our adversaries looked at it from a completely different lens: As an existential threat to their existence.”
Both Russia and China stepped up internal internet controls and other internal security measures after the Arab Spring aimed at blocking the spread of pro-democracy revolutions to their nations.
“And so what have you seen since then, I would say, is the weaponization of information,” Nakasone said. “The idea of being able to control a populace with disinformation.”
“I think that is an incredibly important trend that we’re starting to see,” he said.
Both states are “operating below the threshold of war,” he said.
Russia’s recent information warfare operations have involved the use of hard and soft power, such as the so-called “little green men” in Russian military uniforms without official insignia deployed to help take over Ukraine’s Crimea and combined with aggressive disinformation operations to support the eventual annexation.
Another example was Russia’s cyber-enabled intelligence operation to influence the 2016 presidential election by hacking political organizations’ networks and posting stolen emails and documents online.
China, for its part, has taken steps to curtail access to free and open U.S. social media outlets inside China, such as Facebook and Twitter. Beijing also is engaged in large-scale government-backed influence operations on Chinese social media outlets such as WeChat and Weibo.
The Chinese government, for example, controls a group called 50 Cent Army, thousands of Chinese internet influence agents and trolls who are said to be paid the equivalent of $.50 for each online message posted.
China also deployed online technology capable of controlling search engine results so that, for example, a search entry for Tiananmen, the main Beijing square, will not return results on the 1989 government crackdown on unarmed, pro-democracy protesters in the square by Chinese military forces.
Asked if the United States is prepared to wage information warfare against the kind of activities used by Russia against Ukraine and the American election, Nakasone said the military has begun incorporating information warfare into its tactical training.
“We’ve recognized the importance of hybrid warfare within our Army, within our Marine Corps on the ground,” he said. “We’ve already started to take action to train at places like the National Training Center that incorporates the idea of information warfare with a ground combat element.”
The training shows the military recognizes the importance of incorporating information operations with traditional military operations.
Nationally, the United States needs to address information warfare threats and take steps to counter them using what the four-star general called “a whole-of-nation of approach.”