Narrative Strategies – the weaponization of information

Thank you for the encouraging messages I continue to receive regarding the content of this website.  I would like to take this opportunity to answer a regular question regarding my academic activities with Narrative Strategies.

 I am still a member of the Washington DC based think tank and consultancy Narrative Strategies and continue to work with subject matter experts from various disciplines researching and identifying new developments in the field of information warfare which is being  conducted by state and non-state players.  

This is my personal blog and has no connection with Narrative Strategies but further information regarding the  ongoing research in this field of non-kinetic warfare including the weaponization of information can be found by visiting the link below.

Again, thank you for your positive comments

Regards

Alan

Psychological Manipulation via Social Media and the concept of self-identity (first published 2016)

Editorial: Although first published in 2016 I feel the following is still relevant irrespective of whether we are examining state or non-state players using information within the cognitive domain to influence and change behaviour among a target audience.

Although I started researching this subject 11-years ago and the research continues, after recently reading an excellent paper on ‘The Psychology Behind Social Media Interactions’, By Dr Liraz Margalt, who is now one of my LI connections, I decided to write this brief introduction to manipulation based on my own observations of the ‘virtual world’. Many of these observations support several theories put forward by various academics studying both the ‘real’ and ‘virtual world’.

During her examination of the question, ‘why is digital communications often easier than face to face communications’; after reading her views on the social interaction theory of mind and emotional involvement, I found the following of particular interest as it fits my own research observations. “When interacting with other people”, she writes, “we automatically make inferences about them without being consciously aware of it…”.  Liraz, further explains that during face-to-face interactions we subconsciously rely heavily on non-verbal communications such as facial expressions etc. This, as she says, suggests that interaction with human partners require more emotional involvement and thus more cognitive effort than interacting via a computer.

Due to this lack of ‘synchronous’ interaction (subconscious exchanges of non-verbal communications, speech structure; the use of oblique remarks etc.)  I agree with her assertion- it is easier to hide our emotions online.  Based my own observations, I have also come to the conclusion it is also easier to psychologically manipulate or be manipulated in the ‘virtual’ world due to the lack of these behavioral cues we subconsciously detect and process during face-to-face interactions. 

Contagion and Uncritical Thinkers

Fiske (2013) and others have shown that emotional states can be transferred to others by what they describe as emotional contagion which lead others to experience the same emotions without their awareness.  This ‘contagion’ may lead to the mind creating a view of the world by acquiring insights and an amalgam of rational and irrational beliefs (see Paul and Elder). This is similar to the contagion theory of crowds. One of several interpretations of this theory includes- the effect of a crowd is to assimilate individuals within it, producing and overriding psychological unity and changing an individuals’ usual psychological responses in the process (Statt. D, A Dictionary of Human Behavior, Harper Reference)

This process may contain a degree of self-deception which has been deliberately imparted, identified or exploited by an extremist groomer/recruiter who has used the lack of cognitive cues within the virtual world to his/her advantage.     

Although there are multiple drivers leading to violent extremism (VE) which are usually mutually reinforcing, one concept of particular interest is people who are described as ‘uncritical thinkers’, which Elder describes as ‘intellectually unskilled thinkers’. Some academics have also used the term ‘unreflective thinkers’.  People who fit this category, according to Elder- their minds are products of social and personal forces they neither understand and can’t control.  Taking Elder’s argument forward, by observing social media networks we see these ‘uncritical thinkers’ being manipulated by those who tend to skilfully use the rhetoric of persuasion. The rhetoric of persuasion used by extremist groomers and recruiters include oversimplification, sweeping generalizations and the use of stereotypes to enforce prejudices and false quandaries in an attempt to promote a culture of blame and the need for retribution. Over time, the groomer will identify those more likely to accept, without question, the narratives associated with VE and with it the ideology.  This ‘induction’ is the prerequisite for believing in a shared identity which embraces violent ‘jihad’. (see focal actors – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/basic-analysis-social-media-examining-use-drivers-alan-malcher-ma?trk=pulse_spock-articles)

Identity and Selective self-presentation

Identity is a construct that incorporates the way we think about ourselves and our role/position within the larger social environment. As cyberspace and VE ideology is a global phenomenon, both can have a powerful effect on ones view of the world and ‘perceived’ grievances. 

Although online identities may be difficult to ascertained due to identity cues being masked or purposely misrepresented, by careful observations and comparisons, online activities and their visible traces may be analysed. If we take LinkedIn as an example, many members who have confronted Russian trolls have identified the use of Selective Self-Presentation to reveal a number of false profiles held by one person. The term ‘selective’  is used to describe a false profile which has been selected for a given purpose. For instance, in the case of Russian propagandists some may claim to be involved in international affairs in the hope of encouraging greater credibility to their comments and other internet activities. Likewise, it is not uncommon for those with a terrorist agenda to claim they are professionally involved in ‘positive’ occupations such as human rights, humanitarian aid etc.

 Asynchronous

In the ‘real world’ human interaction and communications are of a synchronous nature- non-verbal communications, eye contact, speech tones etc., and this is a two- way process giving further meaning and substance to the conversation.

CMC (computer-mediated communications) is of an asynchronous nature and thus void of any meaningful communications and identity cues. This time delay allows sufficient time to carefully compose messages tailored to meet the needs and also appeal to the subject/s being manipulated by the focal actor (extremist groomer/recruiter).  For example, in an earlier thread a young person may have mentioned concerns regarding their home life, problems at schools or concerns regarding their employment situation. Although the focal actor may have no personal experience of these problems the natural time delay in responding provides opportunities to use the Internet to read-up on these concerns. They are now in a position to offer ‘disguised’ advice and support. Showing empathy and creating rapport are among the methods used during the induction phase.   

The above represents just some of the methods used to encourage belief in a common or collective identity which is the foundation of VE ideology. 

Reference and further reading:

The Psychology behind social media interpretation, Liraz margalt, Psychology Today, 29 August 2014.

 A Psychological Perspective on virtual communities: Supporting terrorism and extremist’s ideology, Lorraine Bowman-Grievet, Security Informatics, 2013, (2:9)

Primer of Deception, Joseph W. Caddel, Strategic Studies Institute, December 2004

Lying Words: Predicting deception from linguistic styles, Matthew Newman, James W. Penneboke, University of Texas and University of Washington, 2003.

Induced negative subliminal reactions to radical media: Countering recruiting methods in a congested media environment, Small Wars Journal, 7 August 2016.

 Manipulation through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, Susan T. Fiske, Academy of Sciences, Princetown University, 23 October 2013.

Fallacies: The art of mental trickery and manipulation, Richard Paul and Linda Elder, Foundation of Critical Thinking 2004 (Understanding self-deception)

Future Identities: Changing Identities in the UK- the next ten-years, Social Media and identity, Nicole Ellison, Michigan State University 3 January 2013. 
For current research and recent publications go to https://www.narrative-strategies.com/

Iraq- Another Sphere of Iranian Influence? (first published 2015)

Although there continues to be accounts of Iraqi security forces making increasing military gains against the Islamic State Group, many of the successful campaigns have been fought by a number of Shiite militias loyal to Tehran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their Special Forces branch called the Quds Forces (alternatively spelt Qhods or Qods). It is also known that all forces, both Shiite and Sunni, are commanded and advised by Iranian officers and they report to Major General Qasem Soliemani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Commander of Quds Forces.

Quds Forces

This is the Special Forces section of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard whose members are known for their military skills and commitment to the Islamic Revolution. This elite force is responsible for all extraterritorial operations and reports directly to the Supreme Commander of Iran, Ali Khamenei.

Although this is a covert force, well-placed commentators say Quds Forces consist of combatants, military trainers, those responsible for overseeing foreign assets, politics, sabotage and intelligence gathering. In 2004 Quds Forces Headquarters was moved to the Iranian- Iraq border to monitor events inside Iraq and it soon became clear that political instability, tribal friction and a breakdown in Iraq’s internal security capabilities made the country vulnerable to Iran’s superior military forces, subversion and political intimidation.

The steady advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant into Northern Iraq provided Tehran with the excuse to ‘assist’ Iraq in expelling these extremist insurgents. Initially, a small number of military advisors from Quds Forces provided military training and small arms to various Shiite Militia groups know to be friendly towards Iran, Iranian airstrikes on extremist positions soon followed which coincided with more Iranian forces and members of Hezbolloh training and advising an increasing number of militias.

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (later called Islamic State) made further advances across Iraq, communities throughout the country became aware of the mounting atrocities and recognised that government forces were unable to stop their advance. Due to this increasing threat from extremist insurgents, many of the tribal combatants came to the obvious conclusion they could not rely on the Iraqi Security Forces for their country’s defence and saw Iran as their only option. This allowed Iran to seize the opportunity to increase their military and political presence in Iraq. Consequently, Tehran can argue that not only was military intervention essential in order to secure their borders, this intervention was as a direct result of ‘popular’ demand from the Iraqi people!

Although Iranian involvement in Iraq is not reported by the state owned media, some Iraqi officials have been more forthcoming when speaking to the western media. On 23 March 2014, Iraq’s vice president Iyad Allawi told various journalists, including Sky News, “Iran’s role, doing what they are doing, and sending officers to fight and lead is not acceptable”. He also declared that Baghdad is becoming the capital of the Persian Empire.

Allawi also said “The strong Iranian presence in Iraq is not new, but just how visible it has become is quite staggering…”

Iraqi officials and members of Sunni communities continue to complain and express concerns about pictures of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei being plastered on walls throughout the country.

“The posters of Khamenei sends shivers up my spine and there will be a high price to pay for Iranian involvement … The failure of this country means the failure of the whole region…” Allawi told western reporters.

The stability of the entire region now hangs in the balance as Iran increases its influence by filling Iraq’s political vacuum, and proving the countries’ security needs. There is a real danger that the whole or parts of Iraq will become another proxy state, an informal extension of the Persian Empire.

Russian Clandestine Operations in Ukraine and the role of the GRU (first published 2015)

The Russian intelligence community are masters when it comes to propaganda, disinformation, subversion, bribery, using agent provocateurs, and other clandestine methods. Lessons learned during the Bolshevik revolution were refined and became more sophisticated during the Cold War.  

With the advancement of electronic communications, including the internet, the Federal Security Service (FSB), formed in 1994 to replace the notorious KGB, and their foreign intelligence agency, the GRU, recognised that modern communications not only allow for the dissemination of information on a global scale, written words supported by photographs and graphics greatly enhance the psychological impact of the intended message.

 The use of paper trails- the total amount of written evidence of someone’s activities, is still relevant when it comes to modern electronic communications: Internet, videos, electronic news services etc., and a lot of information can be obtained about an individual from their Internet activities and the amount, and type of traffic to their sites. 

 Through the use of glamour or soft porn photographs, which were designed to depict ‘Slavic beauty’, 26 year old, Yulia Kharlamova, became an overnight internet success with a large number of male followers living in Russia and Ukraine.  Often dressed as a Russian Airborne soldier, it now becomes clear this was not innocent flirtation: her intention was to attract and manipulate members of the Russian and Ukraine military as well as neo-Nazis.

Analysis of her Internet activities and the traffic to her various sites sheds little doubt that Yulia Kharlamova was a GRU officer,  a driving force behind the current war in Ukraine, and her activities set the conditions essential for ‘planned’ clandestine military activities.

What do we know from her internet activities?

Yulia Kharlamova was born in 1989, in Odesa Ukraine and studied at the Lobachevsky University in Nizhni Novorod Russia.  Although her area of study is still to be confirmed, she is thought to have studied Archaeology and Ethnology of Ukraine. If this is correct, this may account for her popularity among Russia’s neo-Nazis, where she was known by the nick name ‘Nordika’, and was respected for her vocal support of their nationalist and racist views.

It is also known she served with Russian Airborne forces where she underwent full combat training and there are several references of her serving with Unit 54164 Moscow Region and 38 Separate Parachute Brigade.  Sometime in 2013, reference was made of her being a communications specialist with the Parachute Brigade. However, as we look further into her activities with the GRU there is a possibility that the use of the world ‘communications specialist’ was used to mask the fact that Kharlamova was trained in psychological warfare.

We also discover that sometime during 2013 she used social media to announce her resignation from the army. She wrote,

 “Gone in reserve. I am thankful to the army for many things, it was the best lessons of my life. I learned a lot. I have found a very good civilian job which opens my creative potential

Shortly after announcing her resignation, Kharlamova increased her internet activities and started to engage members of the Ukraine Army, their families, and anyone with grievances against the Ukrainian government. During the same period she also increased her influence over Russia’s neo-Nazi movements and renewed her relationship with the notorious neo-Nazi, Alexi Milchakov, who she had known since 2000.

Alexi Milchakov would later be accused of a number of war crimes, including the decapitation of Ukrainian POW’s. From the age of 14, most of his recreation activities involved cutting the heads of dogs and skinning dogs alive before uploading photographs of his ‘hobby’ to social media. One may argue that his ‘hobby’ fits the profile of a sadistic psychopath who would willingly be involved in war crimes. However, there remains insufficient evidence as to his involvement.

It was shortly after Kharlamova renewed her relationship with Milchakov that she publicly showed her true political beliefs by announcing on social media she was a “Novorossiya Freedom Fighter”- an historic term of the Russian Empire denoting a region north of the Black Sea, which Russia annexed as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, and which is now used by Russian propagandists to describe parts of eastern Ukraine they now wish to annex.

 Through various social media networks she used her ‘communications’ skills and ‘creative potential’ to mount a coherent psychological campaign to win support for Russian nationalism based on Novorossiya, and also created the necessary conditions for Russian clandestine military operations in Ukraine. Through a large number of posts, mixed with a blend of Russian folk lore imagery, she appealed to Ukrainian soldiers to rise-up against their government.

One of her early posts:

“Due to grandiose abuse of the authorities, violation of your legal rights, re-writing laws which led you to turning into slaves, outrageous activities and no one thinking of letting you go home. For all these reasons, among all who spent a year and a half service {military} we declare action of protest! Friends, this is our only chance to go home without waiting for years under the mercy of illegal authorities that came to power by armed overturns”

“Press the share button and share with your friends”

On 13 December 2014, Kharlamova widely published the following post:

 “All of Ukraine, parents, come to the military bases, start the uproar, take children that serve at our military units. Those parents who won’t make it, leave by yourself, this is our last chance!!! Remaining silent leaves us slaves WITHOUT RIGHTS AND SILENCED WITHOUT PERSONAL LIFE AND FUTURE don’t be a herd – you are human, you are people, you are power. Share in local media and tell your fellow soldiers. Support our honour of the whole country”

The above are just two of a plethora of messages encouraging an uprising against the Ukraine government.

Her role as agent provocateur was not confined to promoting revolution through the use of social media, she also traveled to Ukraine and actively encouraged violence against the government and directed this violence to further the nationalist cause.

 On 12 April 2015 the Independent Newspaper described the riots in Kiev as, “Plumes of black smoke billow over the city, fires rage in the scorched skeletons of cars, and hundreds have been wounded, with two confirmed dead. Hordes of riot police are on the streets and the EU’s justice chief has said the country is sliding towards civil war. Unless you’ve been following the events from the beginning it’s difficult to glean why tensions are now strained to breaking point”

This report raised an interesting question – “Why tensions are now strained to breaking point”

There is mounting evidence to support claims that the violence in Kiev was as a direct result of subversive activities which were directed by Yulia Kharlamova.  For instance, there are several eye witness accounts of seeing her increasing tensions among army conscripts outside the Presidential Administration Building in Kiev, which led to the so-called National Guards Protest, an event which was fully exploited for propaganda purposes by various Russian state owned media organisations.  There have also been several accounts of Kharlamova, along with other women she claimed to be members of her family, provoking and encouraging crowds in Kiev to commit acts of violence against police, government forces and institutions.

Military operations with Alexey Milchakov

 From his social media profile and various posts we find that Milchakov was a dedicated Nazis who openly discussed his enjoyment for torturing stray dogs.  He also said he was born St Petersburg and is known by the nickname ‘Fritz’ by his neo-Nazi friends.

Through his Internet activities it was established that Alexey Milchakov commanded the so-called ‘Batman’ Spetsnaz Rapid Response Unit, operating out of Luhansk, and this unit reported directly to the GRU.  Although details remain incomplete, Kharlamova fought alongside Milchakov on several occasions. On 5 September 2014, both were involved in an attack on Ukrainian government forces in the village of Shchastya, in the Lugansk region, in which eleven Ukrainian soldiers were killed.

Although on several occasions Yulia Kharlamova publicly denied being in Kiev during the time of the riots, due to increasing allegations of her being a GRU officer and  playing a major contribution to the war in Ukraine, the GRU planned a damage limitation exercise.  This resulted in Kharlamova making a number of television appearances designed to clear her name.

On Ren TV, a Russian channel, she denied being an intelligence officer and said she had no connection with the violent events in Kiev.  On the same day, she was interviewed by TV Zed, also a Russian channel and allegedly controlled by the Ministry of Defence, this time she was described as an activist who was born in Odessa, who was simply visiting relatives in Ukraine. Again, she denied being a GRU officer.