Division, Inc: Part I

Odds are good that at the moment you are reading this, at least one topic is trending on Twitter that did not get on the trending list organically.

In the time it took you to read that last sentence, hundreds of malign messages began circulating on various websites across the internet. As those messages began circulating, the amplification started. You might not be able to hear it, but there is a steadily increasing digital applause that is paired with those messages and other organic messages of that sort. That applause is silently asking for you to clap along with it.

The internet affords users relative anonymity. Most people use this anonymity in good faith. But the internet is not exclusive to those who act in good faith. For example, the Trump campaign used Cambridge Analytica in 2016 in their digital operations. As a result of an investigation into their activities, the folks behind CA shut down that entity. But this was merely meant to fool the public. The main people behind CA migrated over to Emerdata.

Cambridge Analytica targeted people with content that was based off a comprehensive study of personality types. This involved the collection of a range of data on individual targets. This is the same tactic that hostile actors use. However, instead of using paid ads, hostile actors use a vast array of accounts that are cosplaying as ‘us’ as they spread their content across the internet.

I use the term ‘hostile actor’ as a blanket term which covers a spectrum of hostile influence operations. This spectrum includes, but is not limited to: bots, sock puppets, marionettes, cyborgs, and trolls. A portion of these accounts are semi-autonomous, in that there are people who run the entities and can step in, when needed. These accounts can run on their own primarily and when there is interaction from a target, the human operator can respond.

One of the better ways to understand how both Cambridge Analytica and hostile actors operate is to take a listen to what the whistleblower had to say about CA. He has a profound understanding of how these ops worked. One important part comes at 2:42 in the video, but the whole interview contains compelling observations.

Several folks who are studying hostile influence operations have discovered that these cosplayers employ the same tactics described by Wiley. I had reached this conclusion around six months ago, based on studying live influence operations as they were occurring.

I had been studying these operations for close to 18 months by that point. Before I discovered it, they had been influencing me, as well. It was a gradual influence. It was working because they were operating around the clock and across the internet. Every single time I went online, they were targeting me. Just as they target all of us.

My pride was a blindfold. Subconsciously, I didn’t wish to believe I could be fooled. It was easier to believe that only those around me could be fooled than to accept that I also could be fooled.

How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!

mark twain (Samuel Clemens)

If you want to see hostile actors in action, pick any popular website you frequent that allows users to make comments. Take a moment and visit it. Click on a recent post and scroll down to the comments.

There is a high likelihood that at least one of those comments you are reading is a malign message. Chances are reasonably good that the malign message is one of the top comments on that post, due to manufactured digital applause. There is currently an exception, though. As of September 2019, the odds decrease significantly if that site only allows paid subscribers to comment and vote.

Perhaps after reading through those comments, you didn’t notice one sticking out like a sore thumb. Additionally, depending on where you went, you might have seen commentary that came from perspectives that are quite similar to yours. For some readers, if I were to point out the commentary, you might even be inclined to defend that commentary.

This is the beating heart of an effective influence operation.

An ineffective influence operation sticks out like a sore thumb. A successful influence operation does not. One of the most effective tactics that hostile actors employ is identifying our biases and then using them to gain an advantage. There’s a saying that goes, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” In the case of these actors, they can be the honey and the vinegar, simultaneously. It just depends on your particular taste buds.

Related: Division, Inc: Part II

As with most concepts, the thought behind the aforementioned saying can be used for positive purposes or for malign purposes. In this case, by playing to our biases, they can more easily slide messages towards us without us outright rejecting them. Then, by amplifying, spreading, and repeating that messaging over time, they can further drive that messaging home. When some in the audience unwittingly trust those messages, the influence operation is working as intended.

Speaking of time, a malign operation of this sort has been ongoing since at least 2013. Most of the American people didn’t learn about the existence of this operation until 2017. Even when given a very conservative estimate of 3 years of mostly undetected operations, that comes out to 1096 days (which includes a leap day) of nearly continuous operations. They notably have shifts so that they can operate 24 hours a day.

Keep in mind, this is just one operation from one group of malign actors. As Robert Mueller stated in his testimony to the congressional committees, other malign actors are copying these tactics. While it certainly would be useful if researchers looked into the details to determine who is behind certain categories of malign efforts online, that is not the aim here.

After much consideration, I have concluded that the most effective way to address this issue is to reveal exactly how it works. Because once a person knows how it works, they can start becoming immunized to it.

Playing on our biases is one of their most effective tactics. The majority of what will follow here and in future parts will be revealing how exactly they play on our biases. Simply put, they infiltrate websites and then use both in-groups and out-groups to influence their audience. Put another way, they focus on fostering an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ sentiment online by playing the role of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There can be many different forms of ‘us.’ Just as there can be many different forms of ‘them.’

The specifics do not matter to these hostile actors. Which form of ‘us’ or ‘them’ that they take on does not matter in the slightest. They are actors. That term is not just a synonym for agent here. It has a dual meaning. They are playing a role. The personas that they inhabit online are merely characters. Just as Bradley Cooper is not really a raccoon from another world, these actors are not what they broadcast to the world.

The roles that they play are designed for one primary purpose. They are working to get an unsuspecting audience to buy in. They want us to buy in, accept the lines they are drawing, and then pick a side, which they can then use to further their aims. Bear in mind, when the goal is division, it does not matter what side we pick, as long as we pick one. Once we have, they can start hammering in the wedges to slowly split us apart.

To be clear, the malign purposes are the focus here. There is nothing inherently wrong with supporting or opposing ________, generally. The goal is not merely to get people to pick sides. The goal is to slowly change how we view ‘our side’ and how we view the ‘opposing side.’

They seek to attract and repel at the same time. They seek to draw in those who have a similar perspective and strongly repel those who don’t. And thus, wedges drive deeper into the ground between us. Their messaging is one of the main sledgehammers that drive in those wedges. They’ve had nothing but time to slowly nudge the audience, little by little. Every person who goes online is part of that audience, until they realize it is just a show.

Even after studying this extensively, I still get sucked into the show sometimes. It is very hard to resist. They are playing to my biases, after all.

Current topics are the primary mechanism they rely on in this work. Those topics could be people, events, recent news, etc. A current topic that they are heavily relying on today revolves around the Democratic Party candidates. It is crucial that readers keep in mind that they don’t care about these candidates in the slightest. They only care that you might.

Before venturing into their current work, I’d like to rewind to a few of the activities they engaged in during 2016. What they are doing now is not so different from what they were doing then. As they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The activities in question are the spreading of conspiracies about the DNC, pretending to support Bernie and Jill Stein, pretending to support BLM, and heavily pushing Trump. While I could break down the specifics of each one of these topics and the specific messages embedded therein, that seems like overkill.

Each of these topics were merely mechanisms for them. They served a purpose of drawing in / strongly repelling members of the online audience and then delivering messages to those audience members. It made no difference if a specific audience member was repelled or attracted. It worked either way, so long as the audience was invested in it.

The overarching message within all of these topics had a central aim; the division of the Democratic Party. In turn, this would serve to further divide American society. In 2016, this also served a secondary aim. By promoting this division and then encouraging potential voters to either stay home or vote for a third party, this had the potential to carve out a path for the human embodiment of divisiveness to enter the White House.

Division is their primary motive. It is not just their motive in the United States. It is also the motive of various hostile actors in Europe, as seen in their posts about Brexit. Once the noise is negated, all that you’ll hear is the unrelenting chant beneath it all, encouraging division. Their support for Donald Trump is partly an extension of that motive, as he is a perpetual purveyor of division.

This seems like a good place to hit pause for now. This discussion will resume in Part II. But before signing off, I’d like to share a few words of advice. You could use the information that’s been covered so far to throw the label of bot or troll at anonymous accounts. But I’d encourage you not to do that. It won’t fix the problem. I draw this conclusion based on the many times that these terms have been thrown around, yet the problem has only become more prevalent.

Instead, consider passing this information along and contemplate using this information as a filter. These long-running influence operations have affected all of us. They have affected me and how I view the world. Reversing those effects will take time and it will take knowledge of the problem.

Pointing at a virus and just labeling it a virus doesn’t solve it. But knowing how to identify a virus and then making sure that everyone else knows how to identify a virus can help. The virus is the division. Wherever you see division being fostered, that’s a virus. In response, we must move the healthy people away from the virus to stop the spread and then let the professionals treat the infected folks.

These influence operations have been ongoing for over 5 years. People have been affected by this. We all have been affected by this. People will become aware of the illusion eventually. But this will not happen at the same speed for everyone.

As you break the illusion, be kind and understanding towards those who haven’t yet. Treat them as you would want to have been treated when you were being influenced by hostile actors. Even if you didn’t get treated well. Which I know is a big ask. Empathy is not easy. Especially given how people’s ego will tend to defend itself from such a notion at first. Be patient. Be kind.

P.S. I would not be surprised if this piece prompts a reaction from those hostile actors and the people behind those hostile actors. Almost every time I’ve discussed some element of this online, there’s been a reaction. Their goal is to discredit what I say because it interferes with their spreading of divisive messages.  But I’ve got thick skin and I will not be easily dissuaded.

Related: Division, Inc: Part II

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