Tensions are runing high again after a lull of several weeks in an open propaganda battle and a psychological war between the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), on the other.
Apparently, the current situation could hardly be described as a lull as Washington, with a dogged consistency, kept reporting about new sanctions against Iran, flavoring the reports with anti-Iranian rhetoric. In Tehran, there appeared an array of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments calling for a fight against the enemy. However, passions still fell short of reaching the degree of a “hot” war which was reported in the summer and early autumn.
Meanwhile, some secret invisible battles were fought in the cyberspace during this “quiet” period unabated. Just like it happens everywhere in our troubled times.
According to Reuters , in response to the September attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, the United States dealt a cyber strike at the technical facilities of Iran’s propaganda infrastructure with a view to undermine Iran’s capabilities in this area. According to Reuters, “Tehran is considered a major player that disseminates misinformation.” In 2018, according to this British agency, an inquiry uncovered more than 70 websites spreading Iranian propaganda in 15 countries.
Iranian Minister of Information and Communication Technology Mohammad Jawad Azari Jahromi has expressed doubts that the American cyber campaign will be successful, saying: “They (the Americans) must have been dreaming about it.” On October 29, speaking at a security conference in Munich, he revealed that Iran has a cyber security project codenamed Digital Fortress (Dejfa), which enabled Iran to repel 33 million cyber attacks in 2018.
However, it looks like Iran has the potential not only to defend itself in cyberspace, but can also engage in extensive operations. On October 4, the press service of the computer corporation Microsoft reported about the activities of the hacker group Phosphorous, which it said had links with the government of Iran.
According to the Microsoft report, experts of Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) have registered an upsurge in the cyber activity of a group called Phosphorous. Hackers meant to break the accounts of current and former US government officials, journalists who have been covering international politics, and of prominent Iranians living abroad.
Microsoft claims that over a period of 30 days in August and September, Phosphorous hackers made over 2,700 attempts to get hold of the data stored in the electronic mailboxes of different individuals by attacking 241 accounts. However, they were able to crack only four accounts.
The report also makes it clear that the hacker group “did not demonstrate any particular skills in handling highly sophisticated technology.” Despite this, they possessed a lot of information about people whose accounts they had attacked. Judging by this, Microsoft concluded that Phosphorous hackers are well motivated and are willing to spend time necessary for collecting information about potential victims and for preparing the attacks.
Microsoft has been tracking the Phosphorous group since 2013. In March this year Microsoft representatives reported that the company had received a court ruling which enabled it to assume control of 99 websites which had been used by hackers from Phosphorous to carry out cyber attacks. Microsoft says the above group is also known as ART 35, Charming Kitten and Ajax Security Team.
Thus, reports of US-Iranian cyber operations against each other have once again confirmed that tensions in relations between the United States and Iran show no signs of decreasing and are acquiring a new format.
Given the situation, we ought to remember that Iran has another “staunch enemy” – Israel, which has repeatedly carried out cyber attacks on Iran. In the much-talked – about cyber attack on the Natanz nuclear center in 2010 more than one thousand centrifuges were paralyzed by the Stuxnet virus, which had been developed by the USA and Israel. Back then, Israel and the United States succeeded in using the world’s first cyber weapon and thereby launching a new battleground. Stuxnet proved that cyberspace can be used to conduct not only information and intelligence operations – it can also cause tangible damage to the enemy.
Amid the current mass protests that are taking place in Iran in connection with rising fuel prices, the use of cyber technology by Tehran’s opponents carries a potential threat to the regime. Most likely, these rallies will have the same end as the political ones in 2009 or economic ones in 2017 – 2018 – the protesters will back off. However, as cyber war instruments progress year on year, it is difficult to say what role cyber sphere will play in Iran in the near future.
Meanwhile, the cyber weapons race is gaining strength throughout the world, including in the USA, Israel, and Iran. Given the situation, cyber warfare is becoming an essential element of the hybrid war between the USA and Iran. This cyber war, while contributing to distrust and mutual hostility, may lead to the outbreak of a “hot war”, which is fraught with the most unpredictable and, God forbid, catastrophic consequences, and not only for the warring parties.
In this respect, an ever-increasing pressure on Iran from the Trump administration, which started the moment the US left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018, triggers a similarly adverse response from Tehran, including in cyberspace.
Under these conditions, as Bonnie Christian writes in an article titled “Why the US cyber attacks do not work against Iran,” which was published on the website of The American Conservative, “the double cyber economic strategy of the United States (cyber attacks and sanctions) turned out to be extremely risky and counterproductive. This strategy contributes to a further escalation of aggressive policies on the part of Iran. Indeed, the American “maximum pressure” campaign plays into the hands of Iranian hardliners, undermining moderate groups in Tehran. For this reason, it will be extremely difficult to secure a peace settlement. “It’s diplomacy and perseverance, not digital or economic attacks, that will make it possible for us to get what we want from Iran.”
And it’s hard to disagree with this statement.
From our partner International Affairs
Rise of deep-fakes to spread misinformation for Ukraine – Russia crisis, possible spillovers, and impact
Volodymyr Zelensky appeared in a video during the third week of the Ukraine crisis earlier this year, wearing a dark green shirt and speaking slowly and deliberately while standing behind a white presidential podium bearing his country’s coat of arms. The Ukrainian president’s body barely moved as he spoke, with the exception of his head. As he appeared to exhort Ukrainians to surrender to Russia, his voice sounded warped and almost gravelly.
In the tape, which was instantly detected as a deep-fake, he appeared to say, in Ukrainian, “I ask you to lay down your weapons and go back to your families,” “This war is not worth dying for. I suggest you to keep on living, and I am going to do the same.” This is the acme of how deep-fakes can be used in such a distressed situation to alter the psychology of the survivors of any particular crisis.
Officials from U.S. intelligence agencies are monitoring various audio and video that have surfaced since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis for alteration that could lead to misinformation.
Before discussing and delving further, let us first understand what exactly is deep-fakes?
Deep-fakes – Deep-fakes are fake media in which a person’s likeness in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else’s. While the act of generating false information is not new, deepfakes use advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to edit or generate visual and audio content that can fool more easily. Deep-fakes were, initially, developed for various ethical purposes like for marketing purposes. Marketers who use deep-fakes may save money on video advertising costs because they do not require an in-person performer. Rather than hiring actors in person, a marketer may obtain permission to utilise an actor’s character. You can then use previous digital recordings of the actor to create a new video by inserting pertinent phrases from the actor’s script.
However, a new use of deep-fakes has emerged in recent years, which is to affect the political dynamic of the country or, more recently, to mobilise the people for or against by fabricating and generating fake films of world leaders delivering false messages and speeches, the quintessential example of which would be the case we mentioned at the start of the paper. Surprisingly, this is not the first time that the threat of deep-fakes has been so serious; even during the 2020 US Presidential elections, FBI officials warned about the use of deep-fakes to influence election outcomes. But, thankfully, deep-fakes were not employed as extensively, either due to restricted technological development in this technology or perhaps due to the government’s vigorous attempts to combat this problem. But this time the stakes are way too high in the Ukraine crisis as the outcome of this particular crisis will decide the fate of global politics for many years to come. According to The Guardian, a Russian propaganda campaign named ‘Ukraine Today’ is promoting bogus news about the war by utilising fake profiles on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And we are all aware of the lack of authentication that these social media sites have in place to authenticate the news and profiles of their users, i.e. it does not exist. Anyone can make an account on these sites and upload any sort of information on it without any proper verification. That is why the lack of potent authentication measures by these sites combined with this new technology of deep-fakes can be catastrophic to the stage of world politics.
Ukraine Crisis – Thousands of people were exposed to fake footage of unrelated explosions within hours of Russia’s intervention. Several people promptly published video of explosions in Tianjin, China, and Beirut, Lebanon, purporting to show Russian bombers bombing “Ukrainian HQ.” The videos were extensively shared on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and others, with the exceptional — but unrelated — footage attracting people’s attention. Simultaneously, other social media users began spreading fabricated folk tales about valiant Ukrainian deeds. The most well-known of these concerns is the “Ghost of Kyiv” fighter ace, who is said to have shot down six Russian planes within hours of the invasion’s start. An ancient video game or military practice tape was posted in response to the rumour, and it received millions of views. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko backed the idea until May, when the country’s military revealed that the “Ghost of Kyiv” was a “superhero mythology.” While inspiring stories of bravery may give residents hope during a battle, experts warn that obsessive disinformation can be detrimental and present an erroneous view of the conflict.
The Kremlin’s initial claim that the invasion of Ukraine is a “special military operation” to “denazify” and “demilitarise” a “Neo-Nazi state” has been echoed repeatedly by pro-Russian users. Many people have dismissed allegations of Russian war crimes, calling the conflict a “hoax.” A news reporter was seen in one widely circulated video standing in front of lines of corpse bags, one of which was moving. The film, however, does not depict fabricated Ukrainian battle fatalities, but rather a climate change protest in Vienna in February, three weeks before the invasion began. Other instances of Ukraine conflict deception have centred on “crisis actors,” or individuals allegedly hired to play terrified or dead combat victims. On March 9, a well-known beauty blogger “pretended” to be the pregnant victim of a horrific attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol, according to one false report.
As the first missiles were launched against Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared on social media that he would not abandon the country. His presence in Ukraine’s capital, as well as his nightly video remarks, put an end to any speculation that he had fled. Some claimed that the Ukrainian president was in exile and appeared in Kyiv through a green screen or film studio. Many of the photographs showed Zelenskyy constructing holograms for various digital technology conferences across Europe, and as the war progressed, he became a more regular target for Russian propaganda.
Geo-Political Angle – False remarks regarding the Ukraine conflict have spread to neighbouring countries, as well as the NATO military alliance. As the fighting continued into May, social media users mistakenly stated that European Union member countries were preparing to join the fight. With a digitally generated BBC News logo, one video stated that Poland’s military commander had issued an order putting army troops on “maximum alert.” The BBC subsequently claimed that no such item existed and that their brand had been used to create a bogus film. Polish officials have also accused Moscow of carrying out cyber-attacks against the country. Another false film stated that Finland was ready to send hundreds of tanks to its eastern border with Russia, in order to increase tensions. A freight train was shown in the film hauling equipment to western Finland for annual military training. This shows how the effects of deep fakes can spill over to other countries as well.
Effects of Deep-fakes on Business – The effects of deep-fakes also includes the damages it can do on a business. Assume a video is published in which a CEO of a corporation expresses (allegedly) opposing views on crucial issues. This can quickly lead to a reduction in the value of a company’s stock. Even if your public relations department answers quickly and denies the veracity of the video, stakeholders are not required to believe it. By the time evidence of this is available, significant damage to your company’s reputation may have already occurred. After all, studies show that the majority of reputational damage occurs within the first 24 hours of an occurrence. Deepfakes pose a similar reputational risk to business fraud, but with far more ramifications. If a well-made fake spreads online, it is difficult to invalidate credibility and a reputation disaster.
In political context imagine if a deep-fake of POTUS got circulated in which the POTUS is supporting the Russia in this Ukraine crisis, the effects of this would change the whole dynamic of the world politics for a moment, at least till an official statement is released regarding the video being fake but till then a lot of damage would have happened. The Ukraine would lose every last bit of hope, the western countries would start questioning the credibility of the United States etc. Now we all know this example is far too extreme, but this was just to show how catastrophic this technology can be.
Conclusion – All of this clearly shows that deep-fake is a very poor step in technological growth. Its shortcomings vastly exceed its advantages. The latest example of its shortcomings is clearly visible in the Ukraine Crisis. The Ukraine crisis has fostered a plethora of kinds of deception, ranging from images taken out of context to digitally edited movies that use artificial technology to spread lies.
Russia points to evidence exposing Kiev’s intentions to use biological weapons
Documents uncovered in the special military operation in Ukraine corroborate the evidence exposing the Kiev regime’s intentions to use biological weapons, Head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Research Center for Chemical and Biological Threats Dmitry Poklonsky said in the run-up to the Ninth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention. “In some cases, the study focused on infectious disease agents that had never been registered on Ukrainian soil,” he said – informs TASS.
“We have obtained reports of investigations into a collection of microorganisms that indicate the accumulation of pathogens in unsubstantiated amounts. There are documents confirming the intentions to acquire unmanned delivery vehicles that could be used for employing biological weapons. Considering the non-transparent nature of this work and the absence of any substantiated responses from the United States and Ukraine, we, of course, regard the documents obtained as proof that Article 1.4 of the Convention was violated,” the defense official said.
The documents obtained in the special military operation in Ukraine, including reports by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency of the US Department of Defense, corroborate that the nature of work carried out there frequently ran counter to pressing healthcare problems, he stressed.
“In some cases, the study focused on infectious disease agents that had never been registered on Ukrainian soil,” Poklonsky pointed out.
Neither Washington nor Kiev deny the fact of the existence of biological labs in Ukraine bankrolled by the Pentagon, he pointed out.
“It was confirmed by the 2005 agreement between the US Department of Defense and the Ukrainian Health Ministry. Far more questions arise from the nature of the studies being carried out in these biological laboratories and how this work complies with the Convention’s requirements,” the chief of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Center for Chemical and Biological Threats said.
Psychological Warfare (PSYOPS)- The Pandora’s Box of Security Issues
The world, functioning in its numerous forms and dimensions, is primarily perceived and misperceived by individuals through the faculty of the human Mind. A factor that creates a significant difference vis-a-vis human beings and other species is the complex cognitive ability possessed by humans. The mind is fundamentally an expression of thoughts circulated and imbibed through various means of communication. Deconstructing it further, thoughts portray the information consumed by an individual. In other words, this complex combination of the human mind, thoughts, and information shapes and reshapes our psychology.
Psychological war, in this context, can be perceived as a strategically orchestrated arrangement of information derived from variables like history, polity, religion, culture, literature, and philosophy broadly to channel propaganda with the prime objective of influencing and manipulating the behavior of the enemy to further one own interest. The term Psychological war is believed to be coined by a British Historian and military analyst, J.F.C Fuller, in 1920. One can observe that psychological war as an instrument of strategic importance is not of recent origin. Instead, the evolution of this tactic can be traced long back in history since the emergence of the State. It is considered one of the fundamental tools of statecraft and quite often has been put into the application as an instrument of state policy. Drawing a logical parallel, it can be advocated that psychological war has a close resemblance with the ancient notion of the allegory of the cave when applied in the present context.
Relevance of Psychological War
Napoleon Bonaparte once said “There are two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the mind.” With the gradual progress of human intelligentsia, the world is and will be shaped and reshaped through the use of technology. The hyperconnected nature of a modern globalized world broadly portrays the image of a collective human consciousness deeply engrossed in the overwhelming nature of technology that reverberates with every emerging aspect of human life. When viewed from the prism of the State as a governing body in the international forum, technology will be the emerging axis of geopolitics since no state and its citizen can exist in silos devoid of the influence of other states. This is primarily due to the free flow of data. In this context, due to the free flow of data, the power of propaganda as a significant dimension of psychological war would prove to be an effective instrument used by the State to further its national interest.
In this contextual framework, the role of conscious manufacturing of narratives under the larger ambit of the idea of psychological war must be given due consideration. In his famous book,The Ultimate Goal: A Former R&AW Chief Deconstructs How Nations and Intelligence Agency Construct Narratives, Vikram Sood unfolds the idea of how narratives are created, propagated, sustained, and refined in domestic countries and abroad to further the national interest. He emphasizes not only the power of information but also the power of disinformation to de-track and mislead the collective consciousness of the nation. Therefore, it is of critical significance for a nation to enhance its understanding of psychological war, considering it a major security issue.
The cost and the expense of war are also major concerns for the State. In this regard, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval establishes the viewpoint that wars are gradually becoming ineffective in achieving political and military objectives and that they are also highly expensive and are gradually becoming unaffordable. He further puts forward the idea of the 4th generation warfare where the operational target of the objective would be civil society. A fair understanding of the 4th generation warfare is of critical importance due to the fact that the modus operandi to target civil society would primarily be through the perpetual use of psychological war. The cost of psychological war, when compared with other forms of war, is abysmally low and also highly effective in manipulating the behaviour of the State. The cost-effectiveness helps it be more sustainable, which can be continued for an extended period of time.
Materialisation of Psychological War
Psychological war is applied by many States as an instrument of state policy. China, in this regard, can be considered a prominent player that has materialized this idea. In the strategic book on statecraft, The Art Of War, Sun Tzu states that “All warfare is based on deception.” China has consciously tried to bridge the gap between the theory and practice of psychological war. The Dhoklam issue in 2017 substantiates how the Chinese government used psychological war as an instrument of state policy to further its national interest.
The hostile approach of Pakistan towards India is not of recent origin. Instead, it is a phenomenon that can be traced back in history during the early germination of the idea of Pakistan when the Muslin League was formed in 1906. After the materialization of this idea by a painful partition of India in 1947, Kashmir became the bone of contention right after Pakistan’s inception as a nation-state. Pakistan, over the years, has become cognizant of the conventional asymmetry between the two nations. Therefore, it has operationalized the path of psychological war in the Kashmir region with a more pinpointed approach of using Twitter as an operational instrument to create misperceptions at a low cost to achieve its objectives.
Psychological War and the Indian Perspective
Taking a momentary glance at the historical evolution of India as a civilizational State, it can be rightly stated that understanding the nature of the mind has been a perpetual theme in the philosophical construct of India. The use of psychological war is not a new phenomenon. The references to it can be prominently found in Indian mythology. In this regard, the epic story of The Mahabharatha is a prominent example.
In one of the instances, Krishna applied this idea of psychological war by disclosing a fact to Karna, which hitherto was kept secret and hidden from him. Krishna, just before the war, unfolded the fact to Karna that he is the eldest son of Kunti, his father is the Sun God, and the Pandavas his brothers. This very fact and the timing of the disclosure of this fact put Karna in a deep psychological trauma that depletes his mental strength. It was at this moment that Krishna offered Karna to join the battle from the side of Pandavas. A similar instance of psychological war used by India was found during The Bangladesh liberation war.
In the context of psychological war, Arthashstra is also a relevant text. It mentions the art of Kutayuddha. In Sanskrit, the word Kuta implies the application of deception, the creation of misperception, and misleading the enemy state; Yudh means war. Kautilya is a staunch advocate of establishing a network of espionage to initiate intelligence and counterintelligence measures as a major security initiative for a state. Therefore, it can be rightly perceived that India has a history of psychological war, which it has implemented to maintain security and stability.
Taking an analogical perspective, if the mechanism of psychological war is like a gun, then information is the potential bullets that are fired from it to target the enemy. The flow of Information can be considered the most important factor that makes psychological war lethal, precise, and effective. Therefore, there exists an urgent need for the establishment of an ‘Information Operations Command’ to tackle the issue of psychological war that is rapidly maturing and enhancing in its nature and methodology, fusing with the 5th generation warfare.
Another area of critical importance in this regard is the pressing need for a ‘National Security Doctrine.’ A national security doctrine is primarily a broad vision of a nation in the domain of its security from an inclusive perspective. Strong inter-agency coordination and refined analysis of security issues are needed.
Psychological war, as a rapidly evolving tool of statecraft in the security domain, acts as a linchpin vis-a-vis the 4th and 5th generation warfare where civil society and citizens are targeted with a perfect blend of technology and information. This makes it a war that doesn’t have a start or an end date. It is fought every minute, and progress can be achieved, even though at a minuscule level, but on a daily basis. Therefore, India as a major player in international politics with two hostile neighbors on its eastern and western border, must hold into perspective the scope, significance, and emerging dynamics of psychological war to keep herself abreast with other states at the international level on the security front.
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