Russia Is Winning The Internet by George Friedman, Mauldin Economics
Two Russian SU-24 fighter planes recently buzzed a US Navy destroyer over the Baltic Sea. One of the planes flew within 30 feet of the ship, according to US officials. John Kerry protested, saying that the Russians were endangering the destroyer.
The media in the West concluded that the Russians were simulating an attack on the destroyer. The claim of an attack simulation, however, is not credible for two reasons.
First, an electronic attack that could cripple all weapons systems would also have knocked out communications and navigation on board the ship, too. Consequently, the ability to maneuver the ship would likely be affected, if not neutralized. The ship showed no sign of such paralysis.
Second, if the Russians had such a system, it would be one of their most carefully guarded secrets. The last thing the Russians would want would be to let the Americans know they had this capability.
If the Russians had successfully demonstrated a system like this, the US would be frantically analyzing what happened, trying to reverse engineer the system for US use, and making urgent upgrades to ships to prevent such attacks.
So why did this story suddenly appear?
The Russians are masters of the Internet
The encounter was primarily a propaganda ploy that by itself had minimal significance. The US reaction made it seem more significant than it was. The Russians, in turn, tried to magnify its importance by spreading the claim—making Russia appear more militarily imposing than it is.
Reality is tenuous on the Internet… particularly on Twitter. Managing the Internet effectively has the potential to alter perceptions. All countries and corporations use the Internet this way, but the Russians are masters of the craft.
I was a minor player in one such event last year. On a visit to Russia, I told the business journal Kommersant that if the US were behind a coup in Kiev, it would have been the most blatant coup in history, as the US government openly supported the uprising and had provided some funding for the demonstrating groups.
In other words, it was no coup. The Russian news service Sputnik published what I said, cutting out a few odds and ends, and quoted me as saying that Ukraine “was the most blatant coup in history.” The neat part is that they didn’t make it up. I did say it. They just left out the words before and after the statement. Since I was of no importance in the United States, they had to promote me as someone significant, which on the whole was nice of them.
(If you have absolutely nothing to do someday, check the Internet and Twitter, and you will find me saying the United States staged the most blatant coup in history.)
Most Russians and most Americans didn’t notice this turn of events. But in a systematic campaign to saturate the Internet, the Russians fed the quote back into some major Russian print publications, then back onto the Internet, until it resonated and fed back on itself.
Multiply this twisting of my statement several thousand times with the abuse of statements or near statements from other people, and the echo effect can reach a saturation point where the Russian narrative on what happened in Kiev becomes widely accepted.
Russia – The Internet has the power to turn a lie into a consensus opinion
The Internet and its various subsystems have created an effective system for shifting perceptions of reality.
The Russians have spread disinformation since the founding of the Soviet Union. For example, they claimed that the US engaged in germ warfare during the Korean War.
But most of what the Soviets did was simply what we might call PR—an attempt to shape public opinion by managing the media. But they achieved only limited success. The germ warfare story was widely believed, but mostly by people who were pro-Russian and anti-American anyway.
It did not change public opinion significantly. What limited the story’s reach was the fact that the primary media outlets were relatively few and were heavily curated—or as the Russians might have said, biased.
The purpose of a publisher is curation, selecting the true and important from the mass of trivia and nonsense. Obviously, this process can screen out outlier views.
Everything has changed with the emergence of the Internet.
The virtue of the Internet is that it makes everyone a publisher. It is a realm of nearly total publishing freedom, but it is also a realm where carefully constructed lies can become conventional wisdom among surprisingly large audiences.
The Internet is an echo chamber, which if struck in the right way can reverberate and drown out competing views as effectively as any editor ever did.
The battle for conventional wisdom
People believe in the marketplace of ideas, but there really is no such thing. The market should work when information flows, but the problem is that the burden of distinguishing the true from the false falls on the reader.
Few people have the ability to distinguish the true from the false given the range of information available today.
Under those circumstances, the market can’t function. The market depends on rational decision-making by consumers. On the Internet, where the cost of claiming something to be true is zero in every sense, the marketplace of ideas has come to resemble an incoherent avalanche of assertions.
Those who understand how to shape the resulting noise can manipulate perceptions, creating perceived realities that persuade, seduce, and above all, persist.
Given the fact that Google remembers all things, preposterous ideas can hold sway for a very long time. In the past, PR campaigns faded away when newspapers were thrown out and memories became hazy. Campaigns on the Internet, however, may remain fresh and dominate discourse for years.
A skillfully managed SEO campaign may produce the highest ranked results for a search on a subject for years; therefore, it makes the first and most powerful impression on precisely the person that the campaign wants to target—the person seeking answers, but unable or unwilling to parse the quality of sources and answers that pop up.
The incident over the Baltic Sea was ultimately trivial. It will not long be remembered. However, anyone with an interest in such matters (conflict between US and Russian forces) will encounter Russia’s widely dispersed claims about the event early and often, thanks to the Russians’ well-crafted media campaign.
The person most susceptible to false or distorted claims is the person who is searching for answers on Google. That person wants to know what he or she doesn’t yet know, or else why turn to Google?
I don’t think this Russian campaign will ultimately succeed, but its evolution drove home to me what anyone can do on the Internet. Recent Russian media strategy demonstrates how perceptions of an event—like the buzzing of a US Navy destroyer—can be shaped and manipulated.
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