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Big data and the Future of Democracy: The Matrix world behind the Brexit and the US Elections

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Authors: Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus

Aegean theater of the Antique Greece was the place of astonishing revelations and intellectual excellence – a remarkable density and proximity, not surpassed up to our age. All we know about science, philosophy, sports, arts, culture and entertainment, stars and earth has been postulated, explored and examined then and there.

Simply, it was a time and place of triumph of human consciousness, pure reasoning and sparkling thought. However, neither Euclid, Anaximander, Heraclites, Hippocrates (both of Chios, and of Cos), Socrates, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Democritus, Plato, Pythagoras, Diogenes, Aristotle, Empedocles, Conon, Eratosthenes nor any of dozens of other brilliant ancient Greek minds did ever refer by a word, by a single sentence to something which was their everyday life, something they saw literally on every corner along their entire lives. It was an immoral, unjust, notoriously brutal and oppressive slavery system that powered the Antique state. (Slaves have not been even attributed as humans, but rather as the ‘phonic tools/tools able to speak’.) This myopia, this absence of critical reference on the obvious and omnipresent is a historic message – highly disturbing, self-telling and quite a warning.” – notes prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic in his luminary book of 2013, ‘Is there like after Facebook? – Geopolitics of Technology’.

Indeed, why do we constantly ignore massive and sustain harvesting of our personal data from the social networks, medical records, pay-cards, internet and smart phones as well as its commercialization and monetization for dubious ends and disturbing futures.

Professor Bajrektarevic predicts and warns: “If humans hardly ever question fetishisation of their own McFB way of life, or oppose the (self-) trivialization, why then is the subsequent brutalization a surprise to them?”

Thus, should we be really surprise with the Brexit vote, with the results of the US elections, and with the forcoming massive wins of the right-wing parties all over Europe? Putin is behind it !! – how easy, and how misleading a self-denial.

Here is a story based on facts, if we are only interested to really grasp the Matrix world. The Iron Cage we constructed ourselves.

On November 9 at around 8.30 AM., Michal Kosinski woke up in the Hotel Sunnehus in Zurich. The 34-year-old researcher had come to give a lecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) about the dangers of Big Data and the digital revolution. Kosinski gives regular lectures on this topic all over the world. He is a leading expert in psychometrics, a data-driven sub-branch of psychology. When he turned on the TV that morning, he saw that the bombshell had exploded: contrary to forecasts by all leading statisticians, Donald J. Trump had been elected president of the United States.

For a long time, Kosinski watched the Trump victory celebrations and the results coming in from each state. He had a hunch that the outcome of the election might have something to do with his research. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned off the TV.

On the same day, a then little-known British company based in London sent out a press release: “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win,” Alexander James Ashburner Nix was quoted as saying. Nix is British, 41 years old, and CEO of Cambridge Analytica. He is always immaculately turned out in tailor-made suits and designer glasses, with his wavy blonde hair combed back from his forehead. His company wasn’t just integral to Trump’s online campaign, but to the UK’s Brexit campaign as well.

Of these three players—reflective Kosinski, carefully groomed Nix and grinning Trump—one of them enabled the digital revolution, one of them executed it and one of them benefited from it.

How dangerous is big data?

Anyone who has not spent the last five years living on another planet will be familiar with the term Big Data. Big Data means, in essence, that everything we do, both on and offline, leaves digital traces. Every purchase we make with our cards, every search we type into Google, every movement we make when our mobile phone is in our pocket, every “like” is stored. Especially every “like.” For a long time, it was not entirely clear what use this data could have—except, perhaps, that we might find ads for high blood pressure remedies just after we’ve Googled “reduce blood pressure.”

On November 9, it became clear that maybe much more is possible. The company behind Trump’s online campaign—the same company that had worked for Leave.EU in the very early stages of its “Brexit” campaign—was a Big Data company: Cambridge Analytica.

To understand the outcome of the election—and how political communication might work in the future—we need to begin with a strange incident at Cambridge University in 2014, at Kosinski’s Psychometrics Center.

Psychometrics, sometimes also called psychographics, focuses on measuring psychological traits, such as personality. In the 1980s, two teams of psychologists developed a model that sought to assess human beings based on five personality traits, known as the “Big Five.” These are: openness (how open you are to new experiences?), conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?), extroversion (how sociable are you?), agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative you are?) and neuroticism (are you easily upset?). Based on these dimensions—they are also known as OCEAN, an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism—we can make a relatively accurate assessment of the kind of person in front of us. This includes their needs and fears, and how they are likely to behave. The “Big Five” has become the standard technique of psychometrics. But for a long time, the problem with this approach was data collection, because it involved filling out a complicated, highly personal questionnaire. Then came the Internet. And Facebook. And Kosinski.

Michal Kosinski was a student in Warsaw when his life took a new direction in 2008. He was accepted by Cambridge University to do his PhD at the Psychometrics Centre, one of the oldest institutions of this kind worldwide. Kosinski joined fellow student David Stillwell (now a lecturer at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge) about a year after Stillwell had launched a little Facebook application in the days when the platform had not yet become the behemoth it is today. Their MyPersonality app enabled users to fill out different psychometric questionnaires, including a handful of psychological questions from the Big Five personality questionnaire (“I panic easily,” “I contradict others”). Based on the evaluation, users received a “personality profile”—individual Big Five values—and could opt-in to share their Facebook profile data with the researchers.

Kosinski had expected a few dozen college friends to fill in the questionnaire, but before long, hundreds, thousands, then millions of people had revealed their innermost convictions. Suddenly, the two doctoral candidates owned the largest dataset combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles ever to be collected.

The approach that Kosinski and his colleagues developed over the next few years was actually quite simple. First, they provided test subjects with a questionnaire in the form of an online quiz. From their responses, the psychologists calculated the personal Big Five values of respondents. Kosinski’s team then compared the results with all sorts of other online data from the subjects: what they “liked,” shared or posted on Facebook, or what gender, age, place of residence they specified, for example. This enabled the researchers to connect the dots and make correlations.

Remarkably reliable deductions could be drawn from simple online actions. For example, men who “liked” the cosmetics brand MAC were slightly more likely to be gay; one of the best indicators for heterosexuality was “liking” Wu-Tang Clan. Followers of Lady Gaga were most probably extroverts, while those who “liked” philosophy tended to be introverts. While each piece of such information is too weak to produce a reliable prediction, when tens, hundreds, or thousands of individual data points are combined, the resulting predictions become really accurate.

Kosinski and his team tirelessly refined their models. In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.

The strength of their modeling was illustrated by how well it could predict a subject’s answers. Kosinski continued to work on the models incessantly: before long, he was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves. On the day that Kosinski published these findings, he received two phone calls. The threat of a lawsuit and a job offer. Both from Facebook.

Only weeks later Facebook “likes” became private by default. Before that, the default setting was that anyone on the internet could see your “likes.” But this was no obstacle to data collectors: while Kosinski always asked for the consent of Facebook users, many apps and online quizzes today require access to private data as a precondition for taking personality tests. (Anybody who wants to evaluate themselves based on their Facebook “likes” can do so on Kosinski’s website, and then compare their results to those of a classic Ocean questionnaire, like that of the Cambridge Psychometrics Center.)

But it was not just about “likes” or even Facebook: Kosinski and his team could now ascribe Big Five values based purely on how many profile pictures a person has on Facebook, or how many contacts they have (a good indicator of extraversion). But we also reveal something about ourselves even when we’re not online. For example, the motion sensor on our phone reveals how quickly we move and how far we travel (this correlates with emotional instability). Our smartphone, Kosinski concluded, is a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously.

Above all, however—and this is key—it also works in reverse: not only can psychological profiles be created from your data, but your data can also be used the other way round to search for specific profiles: all anxious fathers, all angry introverts, for example—or maybe even all undecided Democrats? Essentially, what Kosinski had invented was sort of a people search engine. He started to recognize the potential—but also the inherent danger—of his work.

To him, the internet was a gift from heaven. What he really wanted was to give something back, to share. Data can be copied, so why shouldn’t everyone benefit from it? It was the spirit of Millenials, entire new generation, the beginning of a new era that transcended the limitations of the physical world. But what would happen, wondered Kosinski, if someone abused his people search engine to manipulate people? He began to add warnings to most of his scientific work. His approach, he warned, “could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life.” But no one seemed to grasp what he meant.

Around this time, in early 2014, Kosinski was approached by a young assistant professor in the psychology department called Aleksandr Kogan. He said he was inquiring on behalf of a company that was interested in Kosinski’s method, and wanted to access the MyPersonality database. Kogan wasn’t at liberty to reveal for what purpose; he was bound to secrecy.

At first, Kosinski and his team considered this offer, as it would mean a great deal of money for the institute, but then he hesitated. Finally, Kosinski remembers, Kogan revealed the name of the company: SCL, or Strategic Communication Laboratories. Kosinski Googled the company: “[We are] the premier election management agency,” says the company’s website. SCL provides marketing based on psychological modeling. One of its core focuses: Influencing elections. Influencing elections? Perturbed, Kosinski clicked through the pages. What kind of company was this? And what were these people planning?

What Kosinski did not know at the time: SCL is the parent of a group of companies. Who exactly owns SCL and its diverse branches is unclear, thanks to a convoluted corporate structure, the type seen in the UK Companies House, the Panama Papers, and the Delaware company registry. Some of the SCL offshoots have been involved in elections from Ukraine to Nigeria, helped the Nepalese monarch against the Maoists, whereas others have developed methods to influence Eastern Euripean and Afghan citizens for NATO. And, in 2013, SCL spun off a new company to participate in US elections: Cambridge Analytica.

Kosinski knew nothing about all this, but he had a bad feeling. “The whole thing started to stink,” he recalls. On further investigation, he discovered that Aleksandr Kogan had secretly registered a company doing business with SCL. According to a December 2015 report in the Guardian and to internal company documents given to Das Magazin, it emerges that SCL learned about Kosinski’s method from Kogan.

Kosinski came to suspect that Kogan’s company might have reproduced the Facebook “Likes”-based Big Five measurement tool in order to sell it to this election-influencing firm. He immediately broke off contact with Kogan and informed the director of the institute, sparking a complicated conflict within the university. The institute was worried about its reputation. Aleksandr Kogan then moved to Singapore, married, and changed his name to Dr. Spectre. Michal Kosinski finished his PhD, got a job offer from Stanford and moved to the US.

Mr. Brexit

All was quiet for about a year. Then, in November 2015, the more radical of the two Brexit campaigns, “Leave.EU,” supported by Nigel Farage, announced that it had commissioned a Big Data company to support its online campaign: Cambridge Analytica. The company’s core strength: innovative political marketing—microtargeting—by measuring people’s personality from their digital footprints, based on the OCEAN model.

Now Kosinski received emails asking what he had to do with it—the words Cambridge, personality, and analytics immediately made many people think of Kosinski. It was the first time he had heard of the company, which borrowed its name, it said, from its first employees, researchers from the university. Horrified, he looked at the website. Was his methodology being used on a grand scale for political purposes?

After the Brexit result, friends and acquaintances wrote to him: Just look at what you’ve done. Everywhere he went, Kosinski had to explain that he had nothing to do with this company. (It remains unclear how deeply Cambridge Analytica was involved in the Brexit campaign. Cambridge Analytica would not discuss such questions.)

For a few months, things are relatively quiet. Then, on September 19, 2016, just over a month before the US elections, the guitar riffs of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” fill the dark-blue hall of New York’s Grand Hyatt hotel. The Concordia Summit is a kind of World Economic Forum in miniature. Decision-makers from all over the world have been invited, among them Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann. “Please welcome to the stage Alexander Nix, chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica,” a smooth female voice announces. A slim man in a dark suit walks onto the stage. A hush falls. Many in attendance know that this is Trump’s new digital strategy man. (A video of the presentation was posted on YouTube.)

A few weeks earlier, Trump had tweeted, somewhat cryptically, “Soon you’ll be calling me Mr. Brexit.” Political observers had indeed noticed some striking similarities between Trump’s agenda and that of the right-wing Brexit movement. But few had noticed the connection with Trump’s recent hiring of a marketing company named Cambridge Analytica.

Up to this point, Trump’s digital campaign had consisted of more or less one person: Brad Parscale, a marketing entrepreneur and failed start-up founder who created a rudimentary website for Trump for $1,500. The 70-year-old Trump is not digitally savvy—there isn’t even a computer on his office desk. Trump doesn’t do emails, his personal assistant once revealed. She herself talked him into having a smartphone, from which he now tweets incessantly.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, relied heavily on the legacy of the first “social-media president,” Barack Obama. She had the address lists of the Democratic Party, worked with cutting-edge big data analysts from BlueLabs and received support from Google and DreamWorks. When it was announced in June 2016 that Trump had hired Cambridge Analytica, the establishment in Washington just turned up their noses. Foreign dudes in tailor-made suits who don’t understand the country and its people? Seriously?

“It is my privilege to speak to you today about the power of Big Data and psychographics in the electoral process.” The logo of Cambridge Analytica— a brain composed of network nodes, like a map, appears behind Alexander Nix. “Only 18 months ago, Senator Cruz was one of the less popular candidates,” explains the blonde man in a cut-glass British accent, which puts Americans on edge the same way that a standard German accent can unsettle Swiss people. “Less than 40 percent of the population had heard of him,” another slide says. Cambridge Analytica had become involved in the US election campaign almost two years earlier, initially as a consultant for Republicans Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. Cruz—and later Trump—was funded primarily by the secretive US software billionaire Robert Mercer who, along with his daughter Rebekah, is reported to be the largest investor in Cambridge Analytica.

“So how did he do this?” Up to now, explains Nix, election campaigns have been organized based on demographic concepts. “A really ridiculous idea. The idea that all women should receive the same message because of their gender—or all African Americans because of their race.” What Nix meant is that while other campaigners so far have relied on demographics, Cambridge Analytica was using psychometrics.

Though this might be true, Cambridge Analytica’s role within Cruz’s campaign isn’t undisputed. In December 2015 the Cruz team credited their rising success to psychological use of data and analytics. In Advertising Age, a political client said the embedded Cambridge staff was “like an extra wheel,” but found their core product, Cambridge’s voter data modeling, still “excellent.” The campaign would pay the company at least $5.8 million to help identify voters in the Iowa caucuses, which Cruz won, before dropping out of the race in May.

Nix clicks to the next slide: five different faces, each face corresponding to a personality profile. It is the Big Five or OCEAN Model. “At Cambridge,” he said, “we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” The hall is captivated. According to Nix, the success of Cambridge Analytica’s marketing is based on a combination of three elements: behavioral science using the OCEAN Model, Big Data analysis, and ad targeting. Ad targeting is personalized advertising, aligned as accurately as possible to the personality of an individual consumer.

Nix candidly explains how his company does this. First, Cambridge Analytica buys personal data from a range of different sources, like land registries, automotive data, shopping data, bonus cards, club memberships, what magazines you read, what churches you attend. Nix displays the logos of globally active data brokers like Acxiom and Experian—in the US, almost all personal data is for sale. For example, if you want to know where Jewish women live, you can simply buy this information, phone numbers included.

Now Cambridge Analytica aggregates this data with the electoral rolls of the Republican party and online data and calculates a Big Five personality profile. Digital footprints suddenly become real people with fears, needs, interests, and residential addresses.

The methodology looks quite similar to the one that Michal Kosinski once developed. Cambridge Analytica also uses, Nix told us, “surveys on social media” and Facebook data. And the company does exactly what Kosinski warned of: “We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people,” Nix boasts.

He opens the screenshot. “This is a data dashboard that we prepared for the Cruz campaign.” A digital control center appears. On the left are diagrams; on the right, a map of Iowa, where Cruz won a surprisingly large number of votes in the primary. And on the map, there are hundreds of thousands of small red and blue dots. Nix narrows down the criteria: “Republicans”—the blue dots disappear; “not yet convinced”—more dots disappear; “male”, and so on. Finally, only one name remains, including age, address, interests, personality and political inclination. How does Cambridge Analytica now target this person with an appropriate political message?

Nix shows how psychographically categorized voters can be differently addressed, based on the example of gun rights, the 2nd Amendment: “For a highly neurotic and conscientious audience the threat of a burglary—and the insurance policy of a gun.” An image on the left shows the hand of an intruder smashing a window. The right side shows a man and a child standing in a field at sunset, both holding guns, clearly shooting ducks: “Conversely, for a closed and agreeable audience. People who care about tradition, and habits, and family.”

How to keep Clinton voters away from the ballot box

Trump’s striking inconsistencies, his much-criticized fickleness, and the resulting array of contradictory messages, suddenly turned out to be his great asset: a different message for every voter. The notion that Trump acted like a perfectly opportunistic algorithm following audience reactions is something the mathematician Cathy O’Neil observed in August 2016.

“Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven,” Alexander Nix remembers. On the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump’s team tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook. The messages differed for the most part only in microscopic details, in order to target the recipients in the optimal psychological way: different headings, colors, captions, with a photo or video. This fine-tuning reaches all the way down to the smallest groups, Nix explained in an interview with us. “We can address villages or apartment blocks in a targeted way. Even individuals.”

In the Miami district of Little Haiti, for instance, Trump’s campaign provided inhabitants with news about the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti, in order to keep them from voting for Hillary Clinton. This was one of the goals: to keep potential Clinton voters (which include wavering left-wingers, African-Americans, and young women) away from the ballot box, to “suppress” their vote, as one senior campaign official told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election. These “dark posts”—sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.

Nix finishes his lecture at the Concordia Summit by stating that traditional blanket advertising is dead. “My children will certainly never, ever understand this concept of mass communication.” And before leaving the stage, he announced that since Cruz had left the race, the company was helping one of the remaining presidential candidates.

Just how precisely the American population was being targeted by Trump’s digital troops at that moment was not visible, because they attacked less on mainstream TV and more with personalized messages on social media or digital TV. And while the Clinton team thought it was in the lead, based on demographic projections, Bloomberg journalist Sasha Issenberg was surprised to note on a visit to San Antonio—where Trump’s digital campaign was based—that a “second headquarters” was being created. The embedded Cambridge Analytica team, apparently only a dozen people, received $100,000 from Trump in July, $250,000 in August, and $5 million in September. According to Nix, the company earned over $15 million overall. (The company is incorporated in the US, where laws regarding the release of personal data are more lax than in European Union countries. Whereas European privacy laws require a person to “opt in” to a release of data, those in the US permit data to be released unless a user “opts out.”)

The measures were radical: From July 2016, Trump’s canvassers were provided with an app with which they could identify the political views and personality types of the inhabitants of a house. It was the same app provider used by Brexit campaigners. Trump’s people only rang at the doors of houses that the app rated as receptive to his messages. The canvassers came prepared with guidelines for conversations tailored to the personality type of the resident. In turn, the canvassers fed the reactions into the app, and the new data flowed back to the dashboards of the Trump campaign.

Again, this is nothing new. The Democrats did similar things, but there is no evidence that they relied on psychometric profiling. Cambridge Analytica, however, divided the US population into 32 personality types, and focused on just 17 states. And just as Kosinski had established that men who like MAC cosmetics are slightly more likely to be gay, the company discovered that a preference for cars made in the US was a great indication of a potential Trump voter. Among other things, these findings now showed Trump which messages worked best and where. The decision to focus on Michigan and Wisconsin in the final weeks of the campaign was made on the basis of data analysis. The candidate became the instrument for implementing a big data model.

What’s Next?

But to what extent did psychometric methods influence the outcome of the election? When asked, Cambridge Analytica was unwilling to provide any proof of the effectiveness of its campaign. And it is quite possible that the question is impossible to answer.

And yet there are clues: There is the fact of the surprising rise of Ted Cruz during the primaries. Also there was an increased number of voters in rural areas. There was the decline in the number of African-American early votes. The fact that Trump spent so little money may also be explained by the effectiveness of personality-based advertising. As does the fact that he invested far more in digital than TV campaigning compared to Hillary Clinton. Facebook proved to be the ultimate weapon and the best election campaigner, as Nix explained, and as comments by several core Trump campaigners demonstrate.

Many voices have claimed that the statisticians lost the election because their predictions were so off the mark. But what if statisticians in fact helped win the election—but only those who were using the new method? It is an irony of history that Trump, who often grumbled about scientific research, used a highly scientific approach in his campaign.

Another big winner is Cambridge Analytica. Its board member Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the right-wing online newspaper Breitbart News, has been appointed as Donald Trump’s senior counselor and chief strategist. Whilst Cambridge Analytica is not willing to comment on alleged ongoing talks with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Alexander Nix claims that he is building up his client base worldwide, and that he has received inquiries from Switzerland, Germany, and Australia. His company is currently touring European conferences showcasing their success in the United States. This year three core countries of the EU are facing elections with resurgent populist parties: France, Holland and Germany. The electoral successes come at an opportune time, as the company is readying for a push into commercial advertising.

********

Kosinski has observed all of this from his office at Stanford. Following the US election, the university is in turmoil. Kosinski is responding to developments with the sharpest weapon available to a researcher: a scientific analysis. Together with his research colleague Sandra Matz, he has conducted a series of tests, which will soon be published. The initial results are alarming: The study shows the effectiveness of personality targeting by showing that marketers can attract up to 63 percent more clicks and up to 1,400 more conversions in real-life advertising campaigns on Facebook when matching products and marketing messages to consumers’ personality characteristics. They further demonstrate the scalability of personality targeting by showing that the majority of Facebook Pages promoting products or brands are affected by personality and that large numbers of consumers can be accurately targeted based on a single Facebook Page.

In a statement after the German publication of this article, a Cambridge Analytica spokesperson said, “Cambridge Analytica does not use data from Facebook. It has had no dealings with Dr. Michal Kosinski. It does not subcontract research. It does not use the same methodology. Psychographics was hardly used at all. Cambridge Analytica did not engage in efforts to discourage any Americans from casting their vote in the presidential election. Its efforts were solely directed towards increasing the number of voters in the election.”

The world has been turned upside down. Great Britain is leaving the EU, Donald Trump is president of the United States of America. And in Stanford, Kosinski, who wanted to warn against the danger of using psychological targeting in a political setting, is once again receiving accusatory emails. “No,” says Kosinski, quietly and shaking his head. “This is not my fault. I did not build the bomb. I only showed that it exists.”


KrogerusAbout authors:
Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus are investigative journalists attached to the Swiss-based Das Magazin specialized journal.  The original text appeared in the late December edition under the title: “I only showed that the bomb exists” (Ich habe nur gezeigt, dass es die Bombe gibt). This, English translation, is based on the subsequent January version, first published by the Motherboard magazine (titled: The Data That Turned the World Upside

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Hybrid Warfare Against Pakistan: Challenges and Response

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The term ‘hybrid warfare’ entered the strategic lexicon in the early 21st century despite having been practiced in various forms for a long time. It is defined as a blend of both kinetic and non-kinetic options to offset conventional power dynamics.  Hybrid warfare includes extensive use of tools like spreading disinformation, propaganda, economic coercion, backing proxy militia and cyber-attacks to achieve strategic objectives. In modern times, owing to the exponentially high cost of men and material used in traditional warfare, not only the great powers but various middle powers engage in hybrid warfare in order to destabilize, demoralize and disintegrate their core adversaries.

The advancement in technology over the 21st century encourages the blending of the different modes of warfare making hybrid warfare a practical option for meeting political objectives. The aspects of ambiguity and deniability that accompany hybrid warfare, make it an attractive option for states to exercise subtle power – they do not have to fear attribution and retribution. Hybrid warfare has become more popular because of the issue pertaining to major wars. The arrival of nuclear weapons in the 20th century even to India and Pakistan, and the different major wars have made conventional warfare much riskier. The consequences of the major wars have led to a transformation in how these wars are viewed. States that want to exert their influence have found other means to do so. There is an on-going debate in the UN about the serious consequences of the internet that can be constituted as acts of war. Its warfare without any direct violence.

Pakistan’s arch enemy, India, has constantly been waging hybrid warfare against Pakistan since partition but it has been recently expedited with increased funding, training of a separatist militia, through economic subversion by politicizing international bodies such as FATF and carrying out diplomatic sabotage in the form of disinformation campaigns disclosure by EU Disinfo Lab. Though the decision was motivated by the political objective of placing Pakistan on the grey list, India’s hybrid warfare against Pakistan jeopardizes South Asia’s stability.

India’s main objective when it comes to hybrid warfare against Pakistan is it to keep Pakistan politically and economically unstable. This helps achieve certain other goals like preventing the rise of Pakistan’s power in Kashmir and pressuring Pakistan to settle on India’s terms in issues like Siachen and Sir Creek. India has tried to employ numerous tools to wage this warfare against Pakistan at the different levels.

India is trying to build a narrative, especially among Indian Muslims and Kashmiris that Pakistan is a failed or failing state and the partition of the Indian sub-continent was huge mistake. They are also generating the idea that the Indian Muslims are far superior to the Pakistanis and even the Bangladeshis. The hybrid warfare against Pakistan also has its internal dynamics, as it is very much part and parcel of India’s domestic politics particularly around elections. Even the Hindutva intoxicated BJP came to power by employing this strategy. India has also given rise to the narrative that she always tried to build good relations but the Pakistani military does not let the relations normalize. Also, it is the Pakistan Army, which is not allowing a solution to the Kashmir dispute because when Pakistan and India were engaged in backchannel diplomacy to work out a solution on the basis of President Musharraf’s four-point formula, it was the Pakistan Army which conducted, supported and funded the Mumbai attack of 2008. Thus, the Pakistan Army is portrayed as a major problem when it comes to Pakistan. It is also being projected that Pakistan’s defense expenditure is illogical as it needs to invest more in its development rather than the armed forces to defend itself against India. India is also exploiting the fault lines of Pakistan – Baluchistan and CPEC. Pakistan is also blamed for not allowing regional peace and integration. India links Pakistan to the Taliban at international level. Certainly, India’s main aim is to weaken the social contract of Pakistan by creating restlessness, divisions and instability within the country.

Pakistan needs a well calibrated strategy in how to counter India’s move at every platform. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to understand the nature of hybrid warfare while concentrating on Pakistan’s social and political harmony. More importantly, we need to realize the potential of CPEC. There must be good governance based on deliverance to overcome the vulnerabilities. There is no denying the fact that this is an era of multilateralism, but multilateral approach works well when there are healthy bilateral relations. While it is good to host conferences and seminars, there is a need for more practical action. We live in world were information spreads quickly. Hence, we need a counternarrative to India’s narrative of ‘talks and terrorism cannot go side by side’ but unfortunately Pakistan always acts in an apologetic manner. The media can potentially be the face of any state but in the case of Pakistan, the media does not care and there is no policy-based discussion between the media and the government. Also, Pakistan does not have enough English news channels to portray the positive image of Pakistan. Furthermore, every part of Pakistani society including the media, the civil society and academia should collectively respond to India’s hybrid warfare against Pakistan. For all of this to be successful, Pakistan’s immune system must be protected through socio-political harmony and improved governance. Last but not the least, India may not be able to sustain its economic lure for long, therefore, India must stop this hybrid warfare against Pakistan, and resume diplomatic activities for stability and prosperity of the region.

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How Putin’s Russia is Exploiting Jihadists Against pro-Navalny Protesters?

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Who is Putin’s terrorist: Navalny or Jihadist?

Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin is considering using old tactics to stem the growing wave of nationwide protests in support of his fiercest critic, popular opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This tactic was developed in the late 90s by the KGB ideologists and successfully applied in order to bring to power Vladimir Putin, who is ruling the country with an iron hand longer than all his Soviet predecessors except Joseph Stalin. The tactical skills of the Putin’s policy architects were aiming to frighten Russian citizens by Islamist terrorism and Chechen separatism and unite patriotic and nationalist forces around a new leader capable of challenging the West.

Thus, when the nationwide protests in support of Navalny from Yakutia to Kaliningrad became the most serious challenge, the Kremlin began to trumpet the threat of Islamist extremists and international terrorists. This time, the Putin regime is intimidating protesters with impending terrorist attacks of Central Asian and Caucasian jihadists and their Syrian parent organization, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

On the eve of the next nationwide protests on February 14, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Investigative Committee and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russia warned of the inadmissibility of calls to participate in an unsanctioned rally. Russian state news agencies RIA Novosti and TASS have disseminated information that the most powerful Sunni militant faction of HTS in northern Syria is preparing a series of lone-wolf attacks during the upcoming mass street protests of Navalny’s supporters in various Russian cities. In doing so, however, the pro-Kremlin media cited its undisclosed law enforcement sources and ultimately spread merely conspiracy theories.

According to anonymous sources of Russian security services, HTS-backed Uzbek Jihadi battalion Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad(KTJ), Chechen militant groups Ajnad al-Kavkaz (AK) and Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA) are planning to carry out explosions and attack protesters. To achieve these purposes, terrorist groups allegedly recruited Russian citizens and Central Asian migrants, who expect their leaders’ commands.

pro-Navalny protesters

The Putin regime faced the most serious challenge when anti-government protests took place across the Russia in support Navalny in recent weeks. As is known, in mid-January, Navalny returned to the country after recovering from a chemical Novichok poisoning that nearly took his life and was immediately detained and later jailed for alleged parole violations. The robust Putin regime first demonstrated its grave alarm when tens of thousands pro-Navalny protesters demanded his resignation in more than 100 cities and towns, chanting Putin as a ‘thief’. Police detained more than 11,000 people at what they say were unsanctioned protests that the Moscow condemned as illegal and dangerous.

Alexei Navalny’s political creativity and tactical skill inspired Russian liberal youth weary with the corruption-plagued political order presided over by Putin. Fierce clashes between protesters and riot police during the mass rallies indicate that a new generation is not afraid of arrests and the repressive state machine. And to stop the pace of marathon confrontation with the opposition, Putin resorted to his long-standing KGB tactics, intimidating society with possible terrorist attacks and explosions by Islamists.

Will Uzbek and Chechen Jihadists hit pro-Navalny Protesters?

But the fact is, it’s not the first time Putin’s Russia has intimidated society with possible terror attacks by Islamist terrorists and Chechen separatists to achieve political goals. During the transition of power from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin at the end of the second millennium, Kremlin ideologists successfully tested anti-Islamist tactics to overcome the challenges of the political opposition. The ideologists of Putin’s election campaign created his image as a decisive and strong leader, the one who can defeat Islamist terrorism, Chechen separatism and preserve the integrity of Great Russia. His image as the only savior of the Russian Empire was accompanied by radio and television spots and news about the atrocities of Chechen militants and their beheading of Russian soldiers.

Meanwhile, there is a conspiracy theory in Russian political circles that the powerful FSB orchestrated apartment bombings in the Russian cities of Buinaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999 to boost Putin’s approval rating aiming to ensure his victory in the presidential elections. As a result of these “terrorist attacks”, 307 people were killed, more than 1,700 people were injured. Russian officials concluded that there was a “Chechen trail” in the bombings, but no proof of their involvement was adduced. Many still doubt the results of the investigation and consider Putin to be the culprit of this tragedy.

That’s when Putin uttered his famous phrase: “We will pursue the [Islamist] terrorists everywhere. If they are in an airport, we’ll kill them there. If we catch them in the toilet, we’ll exterminate them in the toilet.” Many still believe that the apartment bombings and the FSB’s tactic against Islamist extremists catapulted Putin into the presidency. Putin soon launched a second war in Chechnya and emerged victorious in the intra-Kremlin struggle. His ratings soared. He met with huge approval in a society weary from the economic collapse, corruption and crime of the Yeltsin era.

Usually people prefer to keep quiet about this tragedy. Russian political figures Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, and Boris Berezovsky worked to unravel the mystery of apartment bombings. But all of them were brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances. Ultimately, the Kremlin’s tactics to combat Islamist terrorists not only helped to rocket Putin to the political Olympus, but also increased Islamophobia, nationalism and chauvinism in Russian society.

Today, even 22 years after Putin came to power, the Kremlin’s ideologists have begun to intimidate Russia’s liberal society with likely Islamist terrorist attacks again as the nationwide protests seriously threaten his regime. This illustrates the regime exhaustion and the lack of confidence in face of the strategic sophistication of Navalny’s team.

So far, neither HTS, nor Central Asian and North Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups have officially responded to the FSB on the plotting of terrorist attacks in Russian cities during opposition rallies. However, in encrypted Telegram chats, Uzbek and Chechen jihadists actively discussed the “leak information”.

Thus, one of the KTJ’s followers on Telegram under the name Al Hijrat said in Uzbek: “Kafir Putin frightens his people with the just sword of Allah.But the people of the blessed land of Sham know that he himself is the main terrorist. Russian infidels and Putin’s Nusayri puppy (Alawites regime of Bashar al-Assad) bomb Greater Idlib to destroy Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah. Executioners will have to hold a harsh response before the Almighty for their crimes.”

A pro-Jihadi chat “Inspire” in Telegram wrote in Russian: “the information about the impending attacks by Ajnad al-Kavkaz is fake. The authorities are trying to hold Russia’s awakening people from mass protests against Putin’s criminal group. To intimidate civilians, the Russian siloviki (FSB) can and are ready to commit terrorist acts, blaming HTS for this, which are not interested in what is happening there in Russia. The Putinists have a lot of experience in killing their own citizens and blowing up their houses.” In this message, Chechen militants indirectly protect HTS from accusations by pro-Kremlin media on impending terrorist attacks in Russian cities during opposition protests. This is no coincidence, since Ajnad al Kavkaz is known for its close ties with HTS.

On Telegram channel, some Russian-speaking jihadists from the post-Soviet space mocked at the ‘leaked information’, some expressed their anger against the “Russian occupants” in Sham, some advised protesters to be vigilant before the FSB provocation. A pro-Jihadi chat Icharkhoin Telegram recommended Muslims of Caucasus be ready for new repressions of Russian infidels and local Murtad (apostate), because after the bombings of houses in Volgodonsk, Putin started the 2-Chechen war and took away the independence of Ichkeria. The Telegram chat “Muhajireen” says that the Kremlin is preparing for a harsh suppression of the mass protests.

It is not the first time the Russian authorities have accused Central Asian and North Caucasian Jihadi networks of organizing terrorist act. On April 3, 2017, the Russian FSB blamed KTJ for the bombing on a subway train in St. Petersburg that killed 16 people and injured 67 others. On October 15, 2020, the FSB once again accused the Uzbek KTJ militants of preparing subversive and terrorist acts in Russian cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ufa, Maikop and Volgograd. In a statement, the intelligence services claimed that during the counter-terrorist operation, they prevented explosions and eliminated two members of KTJ. Then FSB distributed photos and videos of firearms, ammunition, IED’s chemical components, and religious literature seized during the operation.

On October 16, 2020, KTJ in its statement denied the Russian authorities’ accusation in these attacks. The Uzbek militant group stated that “according the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s policy, our activities are limited to the territory of Sham, and we do not conduct jihadi acts outside of it.” Further, KTJ assured via its Telegram channel that it “does not have its cells in Russia and is not involved in organizing terrorist acts there.”

Jihadi factor of Russian democracy

The Russian authorities often make thunderous statements about plotting terrorist attacks by “international terrorist groups” and how siloviki (FSB) successfully prevented its. This time, trumpeting about terrorist plots by HTS and its foreign subsidiaries during mass protests in various Russian cities, Moscow hoped to hit two birds with one stone. First, the Kremlin hopes that alarm on terrorist attacks could become a cold shower for Navalny’s supporters, as a result of which the activity of protesters will subside and the scale of the rallies will decrease. Second, by accusing HTS of plotting terrorist attacks, Russia is trying to justify its bloody bombing in northern Syria before the international community.

However, experts on jihadism and political Islam were skeptical about accusations of HTS for plotting terrorist attacks in Russia.HTS, Syria’s most powerful rebel group, is trying to implement a new strategy to transform itself from a global jihadist outlook into a local “moderate national liberation movement”. Today its new agenda is entirely dedicated to Syria and the Syrian local Sunni community. Within this new strategy, HTS severely restricted external attacks by its subsidiaries – Central Asian and North Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups –KTJ, AK and JMA. Consequently, HTS, which holds the last major rebel bastion in Idlib province and backs the local Salvation Government, is focused only on the internal Syrian jihad than organizing external terrorist attacks.

HTS emir Abu Mohammed al-Julani is well aware that any terrorist attacks in Russia could place his group among the global terrorist organizations, such as ISIS and al Qaeda, from which he decisively disavowed. HTS pursues a pragmatic approach to the political context, and its external attacks outside of Syria could undermine its fragile legacy, which Julani has achieved with great difficulty.

According to the new strategy, HTS has excluded Central Asian and local hardliners from its ranks. Those jihadists who did not want to submit to its new policy, such as former KTJ emir Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki and HTS Shura Council member Abu Malek al-Talli, were arrested or taken out of the Syrian jihad zone. Given the ability of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to pressure Russian-speaking militant groups to abandon its global jihadist ambitions, it can be concluded that the Russian FSB’s accusation against HTS raises many questions.

In conclusion, the Russian authorities alert about Islamists terrorist attacks during pro-Navalny protests is aimed at an internal audience and pursues exclusively domestic political goals. And these goals are clear as plain as the nose on the face. Using these methods, the Kremlin wants to stop the turbulent development of mass protests and divert the attention of people from the Navalny factor. If they succeed, the authorities will take time out to gather strength for the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2021.But if the wave of protests grows ever stronger and threatens Putin’s regime, then a repetition of the 1999 scenario is quite possible. As then, radical Islamism and terrorism can become a starting point for strengthening authoritarianism in Russia.

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Corona pandemic: Realism limitation in solving 21st century security threats

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Today, most serious threats of the 21st century are not ones we can protect ourselves by using armies or advanced weapons. Indeed, the popularity of extreme-right politics, unilateralism based on nationalism and COVID-19 are threatening the world’s post-war security architecture. 

The state-based unilateralism and the trends of national response to the 21st century’s biggest security threat trigger lack of coordination, diplomatic divisions, and incoherent global answer to COVID-19. Hence, as we face the biggest challenge of the contemporary century today, we need to rethink the very nature of our comprehension of national security threats. By doing so, we need a different approach to facing security threats.

With the Corona pandemic as a security threat, one of the foundational international relations theories, the realism, has been revealed to be far limited in terms of its explanatory power than it declares. The argument is that realism has a valid logic and reasons for confidence since answers to the pandemic have confirmed the supremacy of sovereign states, the grounds for the state’s power competition. Nevertheless, the pandemic also presents realism’s weaknesses as a source for successful policy answer to this security challenge. In other words, realism is better at defining risks and threats than suggesting solutions. Put simply, realism’s explanatory power lies in diagnosis rather than treatment or prevention. To make this clear, one insight the theory emphasizes is the representation of states as the fundamental actors in world politics. 

As the coronavirus hit, states shifted quickly to close or tighten international borders, controlled movement within their borders. However, while much independent national action is understandable from a realism’s point of view, it’s insufficient. Unilateralism and state-based measures, such as border controls did not spare states from the pandemic, and unilateral measures risk ending up in national economic and social crisis. 

To fight the Corona pandemic most efficiently, policymakers will have to shift to other theoretical traditions to overcome this security threat. They will depend more and more on greater international openness, trust and cooperation. Hence, while from the realism’s view, unilateral and state-based actions may serve national interest to fight the pandemic “within the national borders”, the pandemic is a global security threat and thus remains unsolved so long as other states and non-state actors have not done the same and states move on unilaterally. 

Solving global crises and security threats such as a pandemic, similar to world economic or other security crises cannot be solved based on the realist considerations of zero-sum competitive logic. Instead, transnational security threats, such as Coronavirus, is unmasking the limitations of individual states actions in the global system. Thus, while realism does an excellent job of “diagnosing the problem”, it does not offer solutions to that problem.   

Considering the necessity of worldwide medical items and actions, coordinated and offered by international organizations and non-state actors, the uncoordinated state-based actions result in an ineffective solution to this security crisis. The perspective this article aims to offer is that given the limitations of realism, we need more faith in international transboundary cooperation based on mutual trust, especially trust vis-a-vis international institutions. However, neither the United Nations nor the World Health Organization (WHO) nor any other non-state actor can overcome the Coronavirus on its own; nor non-state actors such as international institutions are alternatives to national states in international relations. 

Instead, they are an instrument of foreign policy and statecraft and states need to rely on them, incorporating them in finding solutions to global security threats. According to constitutionalists, Robert Keohane and Lisa Martin, “States are indeed self-interested, but cooperation is often in their interest and institutions help to facilitate that cooperation.”

From our partner Tehran Times

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