As Aeschylus said, “in war, truth is the first casualty”. However, every civilization has its own truth or rather its “myth of truth”, just to quote Nietzsche.
Hence how can we apply our non-empiricist concept of true and false to the current war in Syria, which is basically the battle for future hegemony in the Middle East?
Therefore we must study, above all, the social media, which have very useful characteristics for truth and its contemporary “concealment”.
In the past mass communication was influenced and conditioned by an up-down axis, by those who ran the media vis-à-vis those who passively enjoyed newspapers, TV, radio and cinema.
Today, with a view to enhancing and making invisible the “concealment”, which goes hand in hand with the “disclosure” of truth, the conditioning is a peer-to-peer process, in which sources and media overlap and come to terms at horizontal level.
Here the philological notation of the Greek word for “truth”, namely aletheia (ἀλήθεια), applies, meaning “disclosure”, “revelation” or the shift from being concealed to being clear, evident and visible.
However, which are the channels through which we operate, in terms of Information Operations (IO), in the field of social media? And, in particular, how does this apply to the current war in Syria?
It is worth recalling that this war is the war for future hegemony throughout the Middle East, and then in the Mediterranean region.
In principle, the first tactic is downplaying the importance of facts and the people who put them in place – an action which unleashes a series of defamations and denials on the web.
A further tactic of diminutio is that of downplaying the magnitude or relevance of events.
Also in the other media manipulation procedures, this triggers off the typical web effect of demonstrating the “truth” as opposed to the analyses of the old media which, in some way, are all “servants of the visible power” – in the current common meaning of the phrase.
In addition, the Web has a very powerful “mass effect”: if a site or a piece of information is reflected on the Web, it generates a radial recall effect which intimidates the few ones having opposing opinions and is anyway infinitely greater than the effect of any old media.
However, from the Assyrians to present times, the real power is always invisible, just like the Web operators and manipulators.
Hence, in contemporary warfare, the Web is the true agent of the Information Operations (IO), to which the operators of official communication now refer reluctantly and laboriously.
Then, in our categorization, there are the messages designed to influencing behaviours and opinions.
As Wittgenstein noted, “words are deeds”.
In this sector there are the sites with hidden identification sources, those with a false ideological origin, the “stories” – possibly true – which, however, become epitomes (i.e. compendiums, summaries) of political and strategic choices that have little to do with the private and individual story which is the subject of the storytelling.
It is worth considering the impact that the picture of a beautiful Afghan girl’s face had on the US public to make the US intervention in that country psychologically possible.
Nevertheless for the social media sites, the same old advertising techniques of manipulative marketing are used.
They are the following: the exaggeration of qualities, fallacious arguments and, finally, emotional appeals.
Anyone who goes to a supermarket for shopping can find examples for each category above.
Recently, a British newspaper reported a system enabling an operator to simultaneously manipulate at least a dozen fairly credible social networks, while other intelligence services use filtering systems to send to the major web media messages suitable for forming the public opinion they desire.
Therefore the peer-to-peer process of social media proves to be what it really is, namely a “concealment” of truth.
It is worth recalling the real information that is provided mainly by the official sites which, however, often operate with deception techniques typical of the old intelligence technique of grey operations, namely those in which truth and falsehood are mixed credibly.
In the systems operating on the Web, the spreading of undesired news is prevented through the distributed denial of service (DDoS) or through hacking. Data can also be slowed down on the web, not to mention the distribution of some content on the social media, a technique that the US experts define as Viral Peace.
With a view to preventing the dissemination of harmful or defamatory content, a State can also spread a huge mass of irrelevant but not false signals, a technique similar to that of “noise” in traditional networks.
It can denigrate adverse sites or menacing Facebook accounts and possibly manipulate information or filter some websites directly.
And it can also shape the perception of operations, by managing the search engines on the Internet, manipulating Wikipedia and finally saying lies about political, strategic and military facts. Said lies will be believed inasmuch as they will be more widespread.
It is obvious that all these techniques do not rule out the use of usernames attributable to other subjects or the use of malware blocking the network and computers themselves.
Governments and terrorist or Mafia organizations can also prioritize the messages, so that the readers on the Web may attach more importance to the first than to the last web posts, namely those which are not usually read or are considered less reliable because they are less widespread.
Finally, other manipulation techniques on the web and, above all, in social media, are blaming, falsification, labelling, the “appeal to fear”, the “opinion of the Author, of the Authority or of the Experts”, the “relativization”, the “demonization”, the “manipulated videos” and the “ad hoc images”. The first pictures of the riots against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria were images of the regime rallies from which the “dangerous part had been removed”.
All these techniques have been used by all actors in the Syrian war.
In short, the war of the Web and on the Web is a great strategic equalizer, as well as an effective mass mobilization factor within the opponent’s field, and finally an extraordinary element of pressure on governments and military and economic decision-makers.
The latter are usually immediately sensitive to public opinion, that is the real target of the enemy’s mass manipulation.
In the case of Daesh-Isis, the Caliphate’s terrorist group uses specifically Twitter, because this type of social media allows to better conceal the real identity of “texters”, while it currently makes little use of other social media such as Friendica, Quitter and Diaspora, which have quickly removed the Caliphate’s accounts from their records.
Through a Google Play website called “Dawn of Glad Tidings,” currently the Caliphate reaches the Android platform, which it also uses for internal communications and, above all, for the propaganda towards young Islamists in the West.
In this very modern meaning, for Daesh propaganda and communication almost overlap: showing videos of beheadings conveys the message that the Caliphate is strong, does not fear adverse forces and will destroy the West.
This is also the core of its propaganda abroad, including the steganography or “implicit quotation” techniques, which are interpreted by Western or Arab militants as signals for action on their territory, equal in terror to the one they have seen in the videos.
No matter whether the attack is organized in Nice, Paris or Cologne; what counts for the managers of the Daesh-Isis communication is that the attack is perpetrated and is unpredictable.
It is worth recalling that the Assad regime fell as the other Arab countries’ during the Information Operation which was later called “Arab spring”.
In Libya, again for an Arab Spring operation, a few relatives of detainees gathered in front of the Benghazi prison to protest against the treatment of their loved ones, both “ordinary” inmates and political prisoners.
Later some activists of the “Libyan League for Human Rights”, a subsidiary of the head office in Paris, staged a demonstration against Gaddafi’s regime. The police reacted immediately and everything was filmed and “magnified”, while the French government was sending a submarine off the coast of the capital city of Cyrenaica with a group of the DGSE Service Action to expand and sustain the insurgency.
In Tunisia, the rebellion against Mohammed Bouazizi’ suicide (forced by the police asking the usual bribe) on December 17, 2010 was multiplied in the various cities with the Web, while amplifying the reaction of Ben Ali’s regime which, however, did not fully perceive the new molecular and “swarming” threat of the new political communication.
Even the French Revolution was amplified out of all proportion by the false news regarding the many ferocious tortures at the Bastille, where the Parisian revolutionaries found only very few inmates in excellent health conditions, including the Marquis De Sade.
In Egypt, the ranks of the Tahrir Square insurgents swelled only after the first demonstration against Mubarak’s government. The sister of Ayman Al Zawahiri, who was also a doctor, and, above all, the Head of Google in Egypt arrived in Tahrir Square. The latter allowed to bypass the web communications through the social media between the few insurgents and the large audience of young Egyptian Internet users.
The armed “security guards” to control the boys of Tahrir Square was provided by the Muslim Brotherhood – and it was certainly not a disinterested aid.
In Syria, the first activists against Bashar al-Assad’s regime got organized only with videos on YouTube. Before the outbreak of the real insurgency, they created a hashtag on Twitter (MAR15) and set the image of a small Gandhian, non-violent protest against the Syrian Baath’s power.
The point of no return was reached when the Syrian government arrested some young people in Deraa for having written a few sentences against President Assad on the walls.
Since then the Web swelled with messages, which were further amplified by references and comments, while the pan-Arab networks such as Al Jazeera used what they had, namely only the videos “posted” by the insurgents on YouTube, while there were only two Western journalists operating in Syria, who were loin des balles.
At that juncture, while the reaction of the Syrian regime increased, the leadership of the uprising shifted to the armed groups.
There was the dissemination of videos and “social networks” of the various Syrian armed groups competing with one another to recruit new militants and to show abroad who was really leading the anti-Assad front, not to mention the propaganda videos against Bashar.
The most disturbing and notorious videos of that period were those of the rebels’ commander eating a lung of the “enemy” or those of the many corpses of the children killed apparently by Assad’s gas, as during the Hama massacre in 1982 when Hafez el Assad quashed a revolt of the Muslim Brotherhood with nerve gas. The parallel between Hafez and his son characterized all rebels’ propaganda.
The “storytelling” marking the insurgency against Bashar’s Baath Party was anyway that of a non-violent, pro-Western and especially joint revolution.
Three blatant cases of hoaxing and misinformation. Conversely Assad’s regime reacted, again on the social media, by stating that the “Syrian Spring” jihad was funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
It was certainly true, but the primary effect on the web and the old media amplifying the insurgency videos was the one obtained by the children killed by Bashar’s gas, always assuming that is was true.
As taught by the old masters of Criminal Law, the eyewitnesses are the least reliable.
And the terrible images were immediate and affected the deep psyche of the readers and the Western public, while Assad’s “cortical” and political message could not have the same effect.
Even in foreign policy, crime news gains the upper hand.
Therefore the primary goal of the insurgency groups was the West’s involvement and in that phase, at the end of 2012, the Local Coordinating Committees were activated in Beirut, London and Istanbul to lobby their respective governments and the huge “Arab masses”, with a view to stepping up the intervention.
Another tactic similar to the one of the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi can be found specifically in Syria when, at the time, the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights”, based in London, which had always been close to the rebels and funded by Saudi Arabia, was alerted.
There was also the creation of the Sham News Network, which distributed to the official press videos, news and data manipulated according to above described methods.
And it is worth noting that it was the only source of Western newspapers and TV networks (including Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya) which were opinion leaders and influenced the governments which, at the time, had no independent sources on the Syrian territory.
And it is also worth noting that they legitimized the insurgents’ messages thanks to their information authoritativeness.
The network of “citizen journalists”, usually non-military members of the opposition to Bashar, did the rest.
It was at that juncture that the Syrian Electronic Army started to operate in favour of the government and began to launch DDoS attacks and hacking against the opposition websites and social networks.
But it was too late and the storytelling conveyed by the opposition to the Baath Party had already gained the upper hand in the minds of the Western media and public.
Once again, we have to pay attention to what the Italian economist and sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, called “residuals”. In psychology as in war, those who strike first, strike twice.
Finally, before the very first Western journalists arriving on the Syrian territory, a network of “authentication” of the insurgents’ messages was created – a network which was run by some well-known Arab journalists, who acted as testimonials – just to use the advertising jargon – for the videos shot and manipulated by the Syrian rebels.
Twitter, a preferential channel for the Information Operation of the rebels and the regime, was largely in Arabic, and almost all Western operators did not know that language and communicated in English on Twitter. The two language areas, however, never overlapped, thus creating a further manipulation tool.
The English-speaking Twitter-sphere spoke of President Obama or of NATO, while the Arabic-speaking one spoke of situations on the ground and magnified the insurgents’ operations.
Hence, with a view to understanding the present wars in the Middle East, we must know the current deception techniques used on the Web and the social media, which mostly employ the traditional methods of advertising, marketing and applied psychology.
The future will be characterized by “psywars” and infowars, which will generate much more terrible and fiercer effects on the ground than traditional wars. The Information Operations are ubiquitous and pave the way for actions on the ground.
The wars of the future will be Long Wars which will be fought between information central units, while, on the battlefield, the Western self-disarmament will create the conditions for an equalization of the warring forces.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France