The Cornell-Harvard hockey matchup is legendary. Harvard home fans used to play square-dance music and throw hay on the ice making fun of bumpkins from upstate New York. In retaliation, Cornell fans at Lynah Rink in Ithaca would throw fish on the ice (they still do despite being searched on entry), and for many years they even tied a live chicken to Harvard’s goal. I spoke with a recent graduate who explained how students have modernized taunting. Using fake social-media accounts with pictures of attractive coeds, hecklers would inevitably “friend” Harvard’s goalie and learn details about his personal life. During the game, the crowd would taunt him about his aunt Millie, dog Muffin or recent breakup. Eventually the goalie would turn and stare at the crowd in confusion. Successful psy-ops!
The same tactics are leaking into war planning. Psychological operations are nothing new: We’ve had Tokyo Rose, pamphlets dropped from planes, and Iraq’s Information Minister Baghdad Bob’s spewing lies on CNN. Now Instagram? In February 2012, I wrote a column titled “When Will Social Media Elect a President?” Most readers said never. Well, that ship has sailed. It’s time to ask: When will social media alter wars?
In 2019 during a military exercise, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence deployed a “red team” to see if it could disrupt 150 soldiers. Spending only $60 on Russian bots and using only open-source data, researchers were able to learn the usernames, phone numbers, emails and identities of soldiers. They also engaged with them on
and Instagram, mapped their connections with other armed-forces members, determined their location within a kilometer, and even got soldiers to send selfies with their equipment. Apparently even soldiers believe that if it isn’t on Instagram, it didn’t happen.
According to the report on the exercise, they could “pinpoint the exact locations of several battalions” and track troop movements. Here’s the scariest part: “The level of personal information we found was very detailed and enabled us to instil [sic] undesirable behaviour during the exercise.”
a director of NATO StratCom, told me: “Every time we attempted to manipulate behaviors, we succeeded.”
Facebook did shut down some of the researchers’ fake accounts due to suspicious activity. But many groups and fake profiles weren’t suspended. This raises the question: Is Facebook ready or even willing to help during a hot war?
Let’s say, hypothetically, that Russia invades Ukraine and the U.S. sends in troops. Should the U.S. shut down social media in the battlefield’s geographic area? Ban soldiers from having smartphones? Cut power to cell towers? At the Tapa military base near Estonia’s border with Russia, soldiers remove SIM cards from their phones and use the internet only at secure hot spots. During operations, soldiers are forced to jump in a lake to disable phones. There isn’t a simple solution, because a smartphone can be a valuable tool in a soldier’s arsenal.
The Russians also had social-media problems. In 2014, after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, Dutch investigators were able to identify the BUK missile and use public information posted by Russian soldiers and civilians to identify the unit that moved the missile launcher and where it crossed the border into Ukraine.
What to do? In 2010, with little fanfare, U.S. Cyber Command was created. In 2018
Gen. Paul M. Nakasone
took charge. In 2019, I wrote a column suggesting the Cyber Command take an offensive approach. University of California, Berkeley law professor
told me, “Offensive cyber weapons are cheap. It’s defensive cybersecurity tools that are expensive.” I suggested that after a cyberattack we should flicker all the lights in Moscow to show we can. A former Muscovite noted that the city’s electricity goes out so often residents wouldn’t even notice.
Remember the cyberattack and shutdown of the 5,500-mile Colonial Pipeline from Houston to Linden, N.J., in May 2021 that caused gas shortages and panic buying? Colonial paid a ransom in cryptocurrency for a decryption tool to unlock the hacked systems—though some of the ransom was later recovered. What if a similar attack happens again this winter during the hypothetical war?
Last month Gen. Nakasone said that Cyber Command has been active against ransomware groups. “With a number of elements of our government, we have taken actions and we have imposed costs,” he said. “That’s an important piece that we should always be mindful of.” Good!
“Imposed costs” likely means the U.S. now is going on the offensive and making it harder for attackers to operate. Will this extend to the battlefield as well? Are the U.S. armed forces and especially social-media companies ready for cyberattacks on soldiers and to be on a war footing? I hope so. War ain’t tiddlywinks, or hockey.
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