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Maskirovka: The Weaponizing of Misinformation

How a Cold War strategy continues to shape modern warfare.

Key points

  • A Soviet-era psychological strategy know as reflexive control is being weaponized in the Ukraine.
  • You might have, unknowingly, already encountered bids for reflexive control online in your personal feeds today.
  • The reality is that sometimes our most passionately held beliefs may not be as original as we assumed.
Smigielski, A. /Unsplash
Ukranian flag
Source: Smigielski, A. /Unsplash

When White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki commented on March 9 that "they [the Kremlin] have a sort of a maskirovka, a fake story, ready to go," what did she mean?

Psaki was referring to a central element of a Soviet-era approach to non-militarized warfare known as reflexive control, or reflexive mind control. It is a devastatingly effective technique. Used to win the hearts and minds of an electorate, it is frequently used to justify—or strengthen—military action. Currently, it is being deployed as a key strategic element of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Dezinformatsiya and Double Think

Studies of reflexive control (e.g., Chotikul, 1986) often detail 5- to 10-year plans of disinformation, deception, and kompromat (essentially, blackmail).

Key tactical elements include maskirovka (camouflage, concealment, and deception), dezinformatsiya (disinformation), vozhd (idealizing the leader), edinonachalniye (one-man control), and poslushanie (obedience). In the context of Russian leadership, the one-man model remains clear.

The deployment of additional strategies such as dvoemyslie (doublethink) and vranyo (untruths with some grounding in reality) (Chotikul, 1986) deliver devastatingly effective results. The recasting of a war in Ukraine as a "special military operation" within the national boundaries of Russia contains elements of all seven, for example. Comparing this conflict to others as a strategic means of de-escalating support may be another.

Hubert, K./Unsplash
Ukrainian flags
Source: Hubert, K./Unsplash

Winning Hearts and Minds

Reflexive control requires an intimate and clear understanding of physiological science to succeed. To sway a target's emotional responses and decisions so powerfully as to influence action requires, for example, the use of specific informational triggers to create the emotions necessary to think, and act, in a desired way (Chotikul, 1986).

If you´ve ever read a comment online, felt the heat of anger rise within you, and responded with a snarky or aggressive post of your own, you may have played a small, unwitting, yet desired role in an orchestrated social media campaign designed to suppress, motivate, or obfuscate either the views or voting power of yourself or others.

Often, it is literally impossible to know.

Himetalor, E. / Unsplash
Pro-Ukraine protest
Source: Himetalor, E. / Unsplash

Dark Forces

Reflexive control often centers on the creation of a "siege mentality," articulating "dark, sinister forces" (Chotikul, 1986) that encourage out-group hostility and cognitive dissonance and artificially create hypervigilance. The claim of the Kremlin that Ukraine must be saved from Nazification is a current inception of this strategy.

Reflexive control requires the communication of carefully prepared information, at exactly the right time, using the right medium (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, state TV), to manipulate a target into responding in the way that you wish him or her to. Crucially, it must also make him believe that he was the initiator of the thought and action.

In other words, it is critical to make the target believe his thoughts were his own. Therein lies the true power.

Niederwimmer, L./Unsplash
Ukranian flag flying in Lviv
Source: Niederwimmer, L./Unsplash

Was It Really Your Idea?

But why is the illusion of independent thought necessary?

Because if the target feels his response is voluntary and organic, it becomes more powerful, and more deeply ingrained within him. He will subsequently feel mastery over it, and fight harder to protect it. The reflexive controller, in this context, has achieved his goal—yet remains unseen, a receiver of no criticism or question. The target will now take the flak and do the fighting for the controller as that instigator slides into the shadows.

As the target continues to defend it, feel passion for it, and believe that he was the originator of it, a trickle-down effect occurs across social media platforms—and in offline behavior. As the target's beliefs radiate throughout his or her close social group, their influence extends. It is how powerful movements—including those that can devastate a country or democracy itself—tend to grow. And it is anything but organic.

Technological Subversion

As far back as 1986, a report funded by the U.S. military stated, "… reflexive control is more highly and scientifically developed than is realized and therefore deserves more serious national security attention than it presently receives." The same report noted that "technological subversion is being allowed to continue unabated." (Chotikul, 1986)

The theorized technological subversion has most likely continued unchecked for decades, with social media enabling an explosive growth of fake news in recent years.

Fake News and Last-Minute Swings

As stated by Trend Micro, "fake news is just one facet of public opinion manipulation and cyber propaganda" (Gu, Kropotov & Yarochkin, 2017), with propaganda strategically timed to reach the electorate at the most crucial time (e.g., in the hours before an election to elicit the "last-minute swing effect" (Black Hat, 2017), or before the dawn of a military invasion.

Over recent years, companies like 118t Negative News or Weberaser have offered quick removal of offending web content, while click-farms like Weibosu advertised their ability to flood online polls with thousands of votes. VTope, a Russian crowdsourcing company, leveraged around 2 million memberships to offer real-life posts and activity for a client in exchange for credits and other incentives while grey-market services such as the Boryou Public Opinion Influencing System posted manually and/or automatically at a rate of 100 posts per minute to around 30,000 websites. Numerous online sources note that such services may still run as many as 10,000 devices simultaneously.

An Ocean of Misinformation

Many firms continue to operate under the radar, offering easy-to-access means of manipulating votes, competition, and polls on social media, and boasting of the ability to manipulate almost any voting system on the Internet. (Gu, Kropotov & Yarochkin, 2017). Simply put, the online world is one where we can become unmoored from reality very quickly—and often reflexive control is the reason why.

It is highly unlikely that you have avoided these influences. You´ve probably already encountered one today. And that´s because maskirovka is simply so easy to buy and sell.

The sad truth is that disinformation and image manipulation services—serving anyone from clothing companies to despotic regimes—have rendered a form of cheap, anonymized misinformation easily accessible to anyone that wants them. Small chinks in our resistance to untruths, from the seemingly innocuous image filters many of us happily use to the scourge of deepfake videos, have eroded our ability to resist untruths. And it´s becoming a greater and greater threat to democracy.

What Does This Tell Us?

We think our minds are free.

We assume our decisions are our own.

But often, we'll never really know for sure. And in the context of Russia's escalating military campaign, it will continue to play an ever more alarming, and central role.

References

Gu, L., Kropotov, V., & Yarochkin, F. (2017). The Fake News Machine. Trend Micro White Paper.

Chotikul, D. (1986). The Soviet Theory of Reflexive Control in Historical and Psycho-cultural Perspective: A Preliminary Study. July 1986. Unclassified. National Security Archive (gwu.edu)

Black Hat (2017). The Cyber Threat in Europe. Black Hat, November, 2017.

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