April 1, 2019

Adversarial Narratives: A New Model for Disinformation

Key Takeaways1/3

Today’s online threat landscape is significantly more complex and blended, which may lead to many abusive and harmful behaviours slipping through the gaps of current moderation models.

In Marshall Mcluhan’s Culture is Our Business, the media scholar predicted that ‘World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.’

The seminal piece Theory of Information Warfare: Preparing for 2020, written in 1995 by retired Air Force Colonel Richard Szapranski, warned us that the more dependent an adversary is on information systems for decision making, the more vulnerable he is to the hostile manipulation of those systems. Szapranski had the foresight to predict that successful information warfare campaigns would rely on attacking both the knowledge and belief systems of their human targets.

His ideas laid the foundations for the paradigm we know today as fifth generation warfare (5GW). In 2009, a Wired article by David Axe on fifth- generation wars offered additional insights which are chillingly accurate in retrospect: ‘[T]he next generation of war – the so-called “fifth-generation” – won’t feature armies or clear ideas. It will be ... a “vortex of violence,” a free-for-all of surprise destruction motivated more by frustration than by any coherent plans for the future. 5GW is what happens when the world’s disaffected people direct their desperation at the most obvious symbol of everything they lack.

The landscape of today’s disinformation conflicts online was envisaged over 40 years ago by visionary authors and thinkers.

Since then, we have seen bad faith actors of varying degrees of organisation realising these concepts with troubling success. At their worst, hybrid threat actors embody 5GW principles by combining the promulgation of adversarial narratives online with real world violence. They leverage and exploit network dynamics of platforms to continuously broadcast their message and recruit and radicalise new members through the ‘digital influence machine’.

This paper is an attempt to set out a theoretical model for understanding how this ‘influence machine’ operates and how disinformation is spread. We outline a novel approach for understanding the current state of digital warfare we are in – how adversarial and collective narratives are used for networked conflict. The last part of the paper provides a timely case study involving the adversarial narrative against fifth generation telecommunications networks and the genesis of this disinformation campaign.