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Is the Tweet Mightier than the CBRN? The Development of Disinformation between State and Non-State Actors

In 2018, the United States Department of Justice accused a Russian company, the ‘Internet Research Agency’, of interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Employees had made thousands of fake profiles on social media targeting both Russian and English audiences through posts designed to divide America. Founded in 2013, the company expanded at breakneck speed, and by 2015 they were employing at least 1,000 people.

The Internet Research Agency created disinformation: information that is deliberately false, inaccurate, or misleading. The goal is not to support one particular candidate or political agenda, but rather to divide society by exploiting and exacerbating tensions within it. Although slow, disinformation is successful because the average internet user is unlikely to fact check, especially if what they see fits into their political agenda. Even when disinformation is discovered by fact-checking organisations, the chance of the correction being seen is minimal and the damage is already done. One worker for the Internet Research Agency, in an interview for the Washington Post, went so far as to describe the work as Orwellian:

“I immediately felt like a character in the book 1984 by George Orwell – a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white… The volumes were colossal – there were huge numbers of people, 300 to 400, and they were all writing absolute untruths. It was like being in Orwell’s world.”

However, the West does not have a monopoly using disinformation as a tool. Countries like Vietnam, Guatemala, and Ethiopia all hire people to post pro-government opinions and silence dissent. China has sophisticated networks of disinformation campaigners who spread fake news on the internet and shut down anti-CCP rhetoric, both in and outside of China. Recently, Iran has been accused by US intelligence officials of using “troll farms” to spread disinformation in the United States. What is unique about Russia and Iran is their attempts to use disinformation as a tactic to influence foreign opinions. These organisations use sophisticated tactics which have had a demonstrable effect on Western societies and politics. Employees – posing as American citizens, news organisations, or blogs – make posts and comments. The posts are spread amongst other accounts connected to the agency, and because of the nature of the internet, they are soon seen and shared by real people. While the Agency largely focused on supporting Trump, they also advocated for Joe Biden and involved themselves in campaigns for racial equality, immigrant rights, and other hot-button political issues. They have even gone so far as to organise physical events on American soil that capitalise on the popularity of both Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter movement. Hoaxes related to a chemical plant explosion in Louisiana, the shooting of an unarmed black woman in Atlanta, and an Ebola outbreak in Atlanta have all been attributed to the Agency. Likewise, Iran has been found to be running social media accounts spreading disinformation on the U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan, the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin, and the war between Israel and Hamas.

Disinformation as a tactic is not solely linked to state-sponsored organisations and has been used to create incredible influence by non-state actors. QAnon, a right wing-conspiracy theory spread on the internet, suggested that there was a group of democrats involved in the trafficking and abuse of children, and that Donald Trump was villainised because of his attempts to stop them. Joan Donovan, a disinformation researcher, suggests that the ideas have seen a growth in interest and dedication to them despite being false. At the Capitol riots on January 6th people were spotted with QAnon banners, and adherents to the conspiracy theory were among those who stormed the Capitol. Jake Angeli, the man pictured in the infamous shaman outfit at the riot, was a leading promoter of the conspiracy theory. The Soufan Centre reported that Russia’s disinformation machine, as well as China’s and Iran’s, work to amplify conspiracy theories spread by QAnon, highlighting the negative influence that could come from a non-state terrorist organisation’s disinformation being amplified by a state actor. In the 2016 Brexit campaign disinformation was used by Vote Leave, the official campaign to leave the EU, over Turkey’s potential entry into the EU to garner support for their side of the referendum. This disinformation, created by politicians and officials, was then further spread by non-state actors to impact the decisions of the general public. Disinformation is a cyclical weapon of terror, able to be utilised by both state and non-state actors who are fighting for the same goal.

At the dawn of the of the millennium many academics and the terror industry prophesied about the future of terror tactics, they tend to focus on the threat of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) weapons. The September 1999 US Commission on National Security warned of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, former US President Barack Obama said that the Islamic State using nuclear weapons was “one of the greatest threats to global security”, and more recently the UN claimed that the threat of a terror group using nuclear material was a “serious threat” to international security. In 1997, Hoffman said that there were “compelling new motives” that would lead to terrorist organisations perhaps using CBRN weapons. Silke notes that the amount of research dedicated to CBRN weapons has doubled since 9/11, and that prior to 9/11 six times more research was conducted on CBRN tactics than suicide tactics. Non-state terror groups have been able to use CBR weapons with over 200 attacks occurring between in the last 10 years but so far none have been able to develop the deadliest weapons on that list, nuclear armaments.

However, we have seen that non-state actors have had a much easier time handling disinformation. It might be near impossible for a terrorist group to get their hands on a nuclear weapon, but it is certainly possible for them to develop an organisation like the Internet Research Agency or to co-opt the disinformation campaigns of state actors for their own aims. A few dozen writers, computers, and knowledge of the hot-button issues is all it takes to create and spread disinformation. From there, disinformation can spread rapidly, further societal division, and have real influences on politics and society. When the public imagines destruction at the hands of a terror organisation, they think bombings and shootings, designed to provoke and polarise. Nefarious, invisible tactics that exploit socio-political biases that already exist within our countries are equally provocative and polarising.

Disinformation has already proven to be a reliable and powerful weapon in the hands of state actors. A concentrated attempt by QAnon has led to historical political turmoil on US soil. As the world we live in becomes increasingly digital and connected, it is worth considering whether society will face more damage from a ‘traditional’ terror attack, or from a terrorist organization running a targeted disinformation campaign that exploits our biases, radicalises our citizens, and pushes our political system to its breaking point.

Jordan Urquhart-Cavell, 19 August 2021