General Jay Janzen and MRU Professor Kari Roberts. Image credit: Penney Kome

“The information environment has become weaponized,” said Canadian Armed Forces Brigadier General Jay Janzen, in a public lecture delivered January 21, under the auspices of the John de Chastelain Peace Studies Initiative at Mount Royal University in Calgary. “The deciding factor in future warfare will be narrative — whose story wins.”

In advance of four provincial elections and one federal election coming up in 2019, Canada’s director of general military strategic communications is warning that Canadians should be alert for attempts to influence the electorate, especially disinformation campaigns on digital and electronic media. He urged Canadians to pay close attention to their news sources, to learn to identify fake news, and to support professional, credible, dedicated journalists.   

There was a time, he said, when newspapers would print columns from both sides of an issue, side by side, so people could compare them. That was back when people trusted the legacy media. Back then, in the first armed conflict ever telecast live, CNN sent 15 people and tons of equipment to cover the 1990 Gulf War — the U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein and Iraq over his attack on Kuwait.

“These days,” said Janzen, “everybody is a broadcaster. My 11-year-old daughter can capture the same information with her smartphone camera, and use the web to transmit the video. Maybe CNN will pick it up.” While citizen videos can help monitor authorities — say, police at a demonstration — the medium also lends itself to propaganda videos. The upshot is that disruption through spreading falsehoods online has become Russia’s new soft war strategy.

Politico reported in late 2017 that General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff, published a paper in 2013 arguing that  “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means  of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, [emphasis added] and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. ….”  

Politico proposes that:

“Thanks to the internet and social media, the kinds of operations Soviet psy-ops teams once could only fantasize about — upending the domestic affairs of nations with information alone — are now plausible. The Gerasimov Doctrine builds a framework for these new tools, and declares that non-military tactics are not auxiliary to the use of force but the preferred way to win. That they are, in fact, the actual war.

“Chaos is the strategy the Kremlin pursues: Gerasimov specifies that the objective is to achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict within an enemy state….”

Jay Jansen offered several examples of this chaos theory, such as Twitter star Jenna Abrams. Starting about a year before the U.S. election, Twitter started carrying smart, humorous, divisive messages from “Jenna Abrams,” only a few of which were political. She amassed 70,000 followers before she was exposed as a complete fabrication, an avatar front for Russian trolls. The Daily Beast noted that she was also “featured in articles written by Bustle, U.S. News and World Report, USA Today, several local Fox affiliates, InfoWars, BET, Yahoo Sports, Sky News, IJR, Breitbart, The Washington Post” and a dozen other reputable publications.

Of course, Russia Today TV and Sputnik News also featured Jenna Abrams. The most popular news channel on YouTube, said Janzen, is RT, Russian Television. “RT became the first news channel to gain a billion views on YouTube,” he said. “They’re successful because they are paying hard cash. They’re paying YouTube to run it, and paying for ratings. Every cable network in the U.S. and Canada gets RT for free. Probably 85 per cent of RT news is similar to ours. The other 15 per cent is fake news.”

Russians weaponized disinformation mainly for both defensive and offensive reasons, he said. First, NATO expanded widely during the 1990s, to 29 members, and made overtures to Georgia and Ukraine about joining, although Russia was still excluded.

Russia responded by invading Georgia and annexing the Crimea portion of Ukraine. The resulting UN sanctions have left Russia’s economy hurting badly, and the Magnitsky Act threatens Putin’s wealth and ability to travel outside Russia. Putin wants to find ways to ease the global economic pressure without relinquishing any territory. 

Second, Russia knows NATO has it outgunned.

“Our adversaries won’t be able to compete with us with weapons until 2050,” said Janzen. “With NATO, we have a huge advantage in weapons. We have the overmatch. Russia won’t try to challenge NATO directly.” However, another way Russia can advance its own global standing is to undermine its adversaries and, therefore, our values and standards of governance. 

“Instead, they choose the information environment, where they have the overmatch. No one will challenge the Kremlin on their stories even if they make them up. Also, as authoritarian regimes, they’re thinking long term — 10 to 20 years in advance — where our elected figures tend to think as far as the next election.” That is why, if we want to protect Canadian values, ‘We need to figure out our own strategy before the crisis hits, because it will hit.”

On the other hand, said International Relations Professor Kari Roberts, responding to the General’s presentation, “We need to learn the lessons of the first Cold War. Russia, when treated as an enemy, became one. In our darkest days full of fear, when Russia was isolated, the arms race escalated.”  

Russia wants to regain its role as a world power, she said, and seizing territory is part of that. In the face of sanctions, “Political/information warfare may be the new normal,” she said. “There hasn’t been a meaningful coordinated response to the attacks, so Russia feels successful. This is an informal, undeclared form of warfare, blurring the line between war and peace, that leaves them with plausible deniability.”

Although Russia’s divisive tactics exploit economic fault lines and social cleavages in Western societies, Russia did not create those weaknesses. “Nor is Russia putting ideas into play that were not already present,” she said. “Our adversary challenges West’s dominance of global affairs by undermining its ‘divine right’ to do so. And with Donald Trump’s election, they have more ammunition. They are just asking the rest of the world, is this the country we should follow?”

Portraying Vladimir Putin as a super villain is a mistake, she said. It actually helps strengthen his position domestically. Contrariwise, during the Cold War, “When we started to see our adversary as motivated by interest and not by evil, we started negotiating arms treaties. Despite Donald Trump,” she laughed, “I think we need to continue to engage and negotiate with Russia, not isolate them.”  

In response, Janzen said that he agreed with 99 per cent of her talk. Later, he cautioned an audience member not to assume an adversarial position with Russia. “Russia has a right to its policies,” he said, “and so do the other countries in NATO.  We have to ask — does Russia have the right to invade Crimea and Ukraine? To seize terrain, for the first time since the Second World War, by force?”  He shook his head.

“We can’t let them destroy the rules we’ve set up. At the same time, NATO’s rhetoric on Russia never names Russians in general. Always, in the Canadian Forces, we keep in mind that we have a partnership with Russia. We value Russia. We take exception to what they’ve done, but we want to work together with them again.”

In the meantime, he warned again, “I believe this kind of cyberwarfare is going to be part of our reality from now on. We need to be prepared. It’s just a matter of time before we get a serious attack.” 

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was Editor of from 2004 – 2013.

Image credit: Penney Kome

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Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...