Emerging Threats and Opportunities
A year ago, the Chief of Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, delivered a speech to ASPI’s War in 2025 conference that brought the terminology of political warfare to the fore. In reflection upon this speech, we focus this week upon the concept of Political Warfare in the context of today’s social disruption, which might be predicted to continue to manifest in coming months. To frame this conversation, we offer George Kennan’s famous telegram of 1946, which heralded the commencement of the Cold War with writing that resonates today:
‘Efforts will be made in such [Western] countries to disrupt national self-confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity. All persons with grievances, whether economic or racial, will be urged to spelt [sic] redress not in mediation and compromise, but in defiant violent struggle for destruction of other elements of society. Here poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents…’
Cyber and Information Warfare
RAND defines disinformation as ‘false or inaccurate information shared deliberately to influence, coerce, intimidate or undermine an opponent’s interests as part of a political warfare strategy.’ The pervasive nature of social media in modern society has opened new avenues for disinformation to create or exploit divisions in populations which speaks to the heart of what we mean in the term political warfare.
The Chicago Tribune and Politico report officials are monitoring for foreign attempts to influence the current protests in the US, noting ‘a surge of social media accounts with fewer than 200 followers created in the last month, a textbook sign of a disinformation effort. The accounts have posted graphic images of the protests, material on police brutality and material on the coronavirus pandemic that appeared designed to inflame tensions across the political divide.’ These ‘actors have sought to portray the U.S. as a country on the brink, often highlighting perceived hypocrisy of Washington.’ Accounts used range from the official accounts of government officials to un-attributable accounts and bots. Buzzfeed has a running list of false news associated with the protests which provides for a quick, easy study of the tactics employed.
One of the more significant events this week saw the hashtag #dcblackout trend when social media accounts falsely claimed authorities had effectively switched off the internet and cell phone services in Washington D.C. The Washington Post reports one of the earliest accounts to share the hashtag was new and had three followers but the hashtag still generated about half a million tweets in its first nine hours. The Post and Euronews discovered many Twitter accounts promoting #dcblackout seemed to exhibit bot-like behaviour and could have been created for the purpose of spreading disinformation.’ Yet concurrently, other bot-like accounts began tweeting that #dcblackout was misinformation, using identical text. These simultaneous events displayed digital sophistication and was confusing for genuine users, also inhibiting fact-checking.
This events exemplify how social media can be used to accelerate the cycle of action, reaction and publicity for disinformation purposes. As The Atlantic reports, it’s not just foreign adversaries that use disinformation during an election period, with both Presidential campaigns preparing for information battle. Indeed, NATO STRATCOM Centre for Excellence published recently about the use of disinformation in Southeast Asian elections, with a worrying trend being that all countries studied employed disinformation hate speech, often orientated toward particular ethnic minorities that might serve to fuel future political violence.
Irregular Warfare and Terrorism
From David Kilcullen (behind The Australian’s firewall) a long-form article examining the rise of militias and armed protesters across the United States, charting the journey of groups on either side of the political divide organising to employ coercive violence. Kilcullen points to Stathis Kalyvas’s work, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, which recognised ‘the worst atrocities are driven not by hate but by fear.’ Kalyvas’ work also highlights that within such conflict, banal impulses of resentment, greed and envy manifest through denunciations and criminality, a conclusion reinforced by John Mueller in ‘The Banality of “Ethnic War.”’ Criminality hides amongst, complicates and exploits the fringes of politically-motivated violence, giving cause for self-protection from ‘the other’ to fuel identity-based divisive narratives.
But nor should such criminality dominate the narrative; there are clearly deep-seated grievances that have prompted the widespread protests and violence termed ‘An American Uprising’ by The New Yorker and which forms the kernel of truth which aforementioned disinformation exploits. Indeed, The New Yorker charts George Floyd’s history highlighting that the COVID-19 economic downturn resulted in Floyd’s unemployment and eventual arrest. Heavy-handed police action proved the spark that precipitated action from those viewing such police action as an indication of relative deprivation of the African-American community in America. This feeling of deprivation is inadvertently validated by a militarised response or misplaced designation of certain protest groups as “terrorist organisations.”
Fear and distrust then drives a mutual radicalisation process, as explored by Fathali Moghaddam in his book, Mutual Radicalisation: How Groups and Nations Drive Each other to Extremes. In one chapter of this book Moghaddam explores the polarisation of American politics and one therefore might conclude that the present violence was foreseeable (and potentially preventable). This AARC Seminar explored some of these mechanisms behind occurrences of Irregular Warfare.
This mechanism is evident elsewhere as a manifestation of COVID-19 and other disruptions. For example, The New Yorker published last week about a history of Iranian protests to what they predicted to be a COVID-related ‘Twilight of the Iranian Revolution.’ Similarly, the Iraqi protests against foreign influence in October-November 2019 showed a like mechanism. It is in this context that Foreign Policy and CTC at West Point draw attention to the space ISIS has been able to exploit between the US-Iranian competition in Iraq with a resurgence of operational tempo.
Domestic and Information Security
The SMH reports that in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into new laws introduced to parliament, ASIO warns ‘foreign spies were operating at a scale, breadth and ambition that has not previously been seen in Australia’ not even during the Cold War. Specifically, ‘foreign intelligence services continue to seek access to privileged and classified information. Australia’s research and development of innovative technologies and its military modernisation program are attractive targets for espionage by foreign states seeking to gain an advantage to the detriment of Australia's security and prosperity.’
Major Power Competition
In the context of broad political warfare actions elucidated above, the attached LWP-131 from US Army provides a succinct summary of US thinking with regards to Multi-Domain Operations. Graphically, Figure 1 on page 5 of this document very effectively communicates the challenge of expanding domain integration. What this document lacks, however, is the recognition that such domain integration is accelerating as CA’s Accelerated Warfare concept argues and as the AARC has explored here and as discussion herein highlights. LWP-131 articulates that the American Revolution of 1775 steps to World War II in 1939 with the addition of the Air Domain; to the 1991 Desert Storm campaign with the addition of the Space Domain; to today’s integration of the Cyber Domain. These step changes equate to 164 years, 52 years, and 23 years respectively (using the 2014 data point of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ISIS establishment of the caliphate as the integration of cyber into contemporary warfighting). It is these decreasing step changes that point toward the acceleration of change in warfare that is pushing capabilities and accelerating the scope of decisions at lower echelons. Indeed, this graphic also thoughtfully communicates the expansion of battlespace into continuous competition, synonymous to what we understand as Political Warfare.
For an authoritative analysis of Political Warfare, CSBA’s framing as ‘comprehensive coercion’ speaks to the weaponising of political activities against respective targets as explored herein.
CSIS last week hosted an Online Event: Disinformation and Political Warfare in the Age of Covid-19, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Ksm55NGQck
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.
Editor's note: This Land Power Forum post is now open for discussion.