Posts Tagged ‘al-Qaeda’

From Preference Bubbles to Social Inception:

December 18, 2019

The title of this post is identical to half of a title in Messing with the Enemy an excellent book by Clint Watts. The second half of the title is “The Future of Influence.” In previous posts HM has mentioned the tremendous optimism regarding the internet that was written in this blog when it began in 2009. Physical boundaries no longer mattered. People passionate about chess, cancer research, or their favorite television shows could find like-known enthusiasts around the world wanting to share their thoughts and experiences. Those under oppressive regimes, denied access to information and the outside world, could leverage the web’s anonymity to build connections, share their experiences, and hope for a better world, either at home or elsewhere. All these sources of knowledge became widely available for those with growth mindsets.

Unfortunately, hackers and cybercriminals were some of the first actors to exploit the internet in pursuit of money and fame. Hate groups and terrorists found the internet an anonymous playground for connecting with like-minded people. Even though there were only a handful, or possibly only one, extremists in any given town, but with the internet, there were now hundreds and even thousands of extremists who used only internet connections to facilitate physical massing of terrorists in global safe havens or remote compounds.

The internet provided a virtual safe haven for bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, allowing a small minority of Muslims inclined to jihadi extremism to connect with like-minded supporters. As counter terrorists searched the earth for al-Qaeda’s head shed, the internet provided enough cover, capacity and space for the terror group to survive physically by thriving virtually. Watts writes, “This made al-Qaeda bigger, but not necessarily better—more diffuse and elusive, but vulnerable to fissures and difficult to manage.

Watts writes, “My experiences with the crowd—watching the mobs that toppled dictators during the Arab Spring, the hordes that joined ISIS, the counterterrorism punditry that missed the rise of ISIS, and the political swarms duped by Russia in the 2016 presidential election—led me to believe that crowds are increasingly dumb, driven by ideology, desire, ambition, fear, and hatred, or what might collectively be referred to as “preferences.”

Social media amplifies confirmation bias through the sheer volume of content provided, assessed, and shared. And this is further amplified by interactions with their friends, family, and neighbors—people who more often than not, think like they do, speak like they do, and look like they do.

Watts writes, “Confirmation bias and implicit bias working together pull social media users into digital tribes. Individuals sacrifice their individual responsibility and initiative to the strongest voices in their preferred crowd. The digital tribe makes collective decisions based on groupthink, blocking out alternative viewpoints, new information, and ideas. Digital tribes stratify over time into political, social, religious, ethnic,and economic enclaves. Status quo bias, a preference for the current state of affairs over a change, sets into these digital tribes, such that members must mute dissent or face expulsion from the group. Confirmation, implicit, and status quo bias, on a grand social media scale, harden preference bubbles. These three world-changing phenomena build upon one another to power the disruptive content bringing about the Islamic State and now shaking Western Democracies.

Watts continues, “Clickbait populism—the promotion of popular content, opinions, and the personas that voice them—now sets the agenda and establishes the parameters for terrorism, governance, policy direction, and our future. Audiences collectively like and retweet that which conforms to their preferences. To win the crowd, leaders, candidates, and companies must play to test collective preferences.”

This clickbait populism drives another critical emerging current: social media nationalism. Each year, social media access increases and virtual bonds accelerate, digital nations increasingly form around online communities where individual users have shared preferences.

Watts writes, “Social media nationalism and clickbait populism have led to a third phenomenon that undermines the intelligence of crowds, threatening the advancement of humanity and the unity of democracies, the death of expertise. Expertise is undermined by those on the internet who ignore facts and construct alternative realities.

Consider two preference bubbles, the ISIS boys, and Trump supporters. For the ISIS boys it was more important to have a caliphate than to do it right. It was more essential to pursue extreme violence than to effectively govern.

For Trump supporters, it is more important to win than be correct, more important to be tough than compromise and move forward. They appear to be living in an alternative reality that disdains factual information. The Republican Party can be regarded as one big preference bubble. To be fair, one might argue that the Democratic Party should also be regarded as a preference bubble, but one does not find the unanimity created in a true preference bubble.

Messing with the Enemy

December 13, 2019

Messing with the Enemy is an excellent book by Clint Watts. He is a Robert A. Fox Fellow in the Foreign Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East as well as a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at the George Washington University. He is graduate of the U.S Military Academy and in addition to his work as an Army officer, he also served in the F.B.I. He founded the Combating Terrorism Center at the Military academy.

He used the internet to study, or as he writes, mess with extremists half a world away. He observed their debates, gauged their commitment to terrorist principles, and poked them with queries from a laptop at home. He was also able to pose as a fellow terrorist.

The internet provided assistance to al-Qaeda operatives when Osama bin Laden was forced out of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Hunted by the entire international community, his aides and deputies were constantly on the run. The internet allowed for communication between and control of these aides and deputies. Throughout the mid-to late nineties, websites and email chains provided a communications leap forward to terrorists (and the rest of the world), but they had a major limitation: they were one-way modes of information sharing. Bin Laden could only broadcast to audiences. They could not easily follow up with those inclined to join the ranks. All that changed with the dawn of the new millennium. With the emergence of vBulletin, commercially available software allowing group discussions and Yahoo groups, audiences now had a direct window to communicate with Islamist webmasters, clerics, and leaders. In 2001, the Global Islamic Media Front started a Yahoo Group and a related website. They required users to acquire a password to access the discussion page. Many others featuring general Islamist discussions with a sprinkling of jihadi messaging popped up and down toward the end of the decade. Watts writes that none endured for long before rumors of intelligence operatives penetrating them squelched their dialogue and counterterrorism arrests of forum administrators led to their closure. Two-way communication between al-Qaeda leaders and hopeful jihadis increased, but more content needed to follow to sustain audience engagement.

al-Qaeda created an official media group, al-Sahab, to fill the void and gain greater control of jihadi discussions. Bin Laden recognized the value of jihadi websites and began sending audio and written statements from top al-Qaeda leaders directly to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader, Yusuf al-Uyayri, and his site Al Neda. Websites and forums served as principal communication points for those around the world inspired by the incredible success of the 9/11 attacks and seeking to join bin Laden’s ranks.

Replication of sites and duplication of content became key features of online survival for al-Qaeda supporters. Openly available software and hosting services meant websites and forums could be created by anyone in minutes, and accessed by anyone around the world with an Internet connection. This lowered technical boundary for mainstream internet users meant relatively novice jihadis now had the power to create their own safe havens online.

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki describes how the internet provided a vehicle for crowds to make smarter decisions than even the smartest person in the crowd, working alone, could make. On-line Watts made the prediction on January 2, 2011 that Osama bin Laden would be killed that year. He made this prediction to work as a vehicle for crowdsourcing an important question. What would al-Qaeda and the world of terrorism be if bin Laden were no more? He used this New Year’s prediction to provoke the audience to answer this question. Watts was disappointed to find that rather than yielding great wisdom of important insight from experts, the results instead returned a pattern of answers of no consequence, “Nothing will change,” and “It doesn’t matter” became patent answers from the best thinkers in the field, regardless of the question.

So Watts took recourse in research that has been reported in previous healthymemory posts on Philip Tetlock. In his 2005 book, Expert Political Judgment he reported the survey of hundreds of experts in political thought over two decades. He determined that, en masse, experts were no more successful at predicting future events than a simple coin toss. He identified two kinds of forecasters. He borrowed from a Greek saying, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows but one big thing.” He classified those good predictors as “foxes” and poorer performers as “hedgehogs.” What differentiated the two groups’ success was how they thought, not what they thought. Tetlock’s foxes were self-critical, used no template, and acknowledged their misses. By contrast, hedgehogs sought to reduce every problem to a single theory, were not comfortable with complexity, we’re overconfident in their assessments, and placed their faith in one big idea, pushing aside alternative explanations. He saw a lot of hedgehogs in his online surveys,and occasional foxes to get insights. He developed a techniques to identify, in advance, foxes.

At this point, there will be a break in this narrative to mention that Tetlock has conducted additional research into intelligence analysis using a very large sample of analysts. There he was able to identify analysts who performed better than chance, and these analysts were, of course, foxes. These posts can be found by entering “Tetlock” into the search box at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

Returning to the current post on Alan Watts, he used the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (two authors oft cited in this blog) Their research identified a series of heuristics and noted the circumstances where biases emerged to make incorrect judgments. Long ago they identified the predictive missteps Watts had observed in his polls. Status quo bias, a belief that tomorrow will most likely look like today, ruled the responses. Loss aversion, a tendency to avoid anticipated losses rather than pursue equally likely gains, filled the results of counterterrorism policy questions. Herding, the tendency of large groups of people to behave the same way and pursue groupthink, drove Watt’s social media recruits to the same set of answers.

Watts changed his approach using Tetlock’s insigts and Kahneman and Tversky’s heuristics and biases. Instead of asking simple yes-no questions, he flooded respondents with as many potential outcomes as he could think of, making it challenging for non experts to wade though the responses. He identified novices and less innovative thinkers by playing to the status quo bias. Every question had a “no change” response option, surrounded by responses imitating common thinking stripped from Google searches, newspaper headlines, and cable news pundits. With every question he offered survey takers a comment box or allowed them to craft an “other”response.

The prediction he made was confirmed when on May 2, 2012, U.S. Navy SEALS killed Osama in Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The result was that his Twitter feed of only a couple hundred followers suddenly became more active than usual. For a brief Google search period, news of bin Laden’s death brought a world of visitors to his New Year’s prediction. His small blog suddenly had an audience, and he had a new opportunity for rater perspectives from a larger crowd.

Information Wars

December 1, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of an informative book by Richard Stengel, a former editor of Time magazine. During the second term of the Obama administration he was appointed and confirmed as the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy. The book provides a detailed and interesting description of the State Department and the organization and workings of the State Department.

Stengel was appointed to lead the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication. It was integral to the Global Engagement Center. This is important because information warfare is the primary means terrorist organizations fought. It was punctuated by despicable terrorist acts, but the primary messaging was done using the internet. Effective counter-messaging needed to be developed to counter the messaging of the terrorists.

Although ISIS and al-Qaeda are currently recognized as the primary terrorist organizations, it is important not to overlook the largest and most threatening terrorist organization, Russia. Our term “disinformation” is in fact an adaptation of the Russian word dezinformatsiya, which was the KGB term for black propaganda. The modern Russian notion of hybrid warfare comes from what is called the Gerasimov model. Gerasimov has appeared in previous healthy memory blog posts. He is the father of the idea that in the 21st century only a small part of war is kinetic. He has written that modern warfare is nonlinear with no clear boundary between military and nonmilitary campaigns. The Russians, like ISIS, merged their military lines of effort with their information and messaging line of effort.

In the old days, disinformation involved placing a false story (often involving forged documents) in a fairly obscure left-leaning newspaper in a country like India or Brazil; then the story was picked up and echoed in Russian state media. A more modern version of dezinformatsiya is the campaign in the 1990s that suggested that the U.S. had invented the AIDS virus as a kind of “ethnic bomb” to wipe out people of color.

Two other theorists of Russian information warfare are Igor Panarin, an academic, and a former KGB officer; and Alexander Dugin, a philosopher whom he called “Putin’s Rasputin.” Panarin sees Russia as the victim of information aggression by the United States. He believes there is a global information war between what he calls the Atlantic world, led by the U.S. and Europe; and the Eurasian world, led by Russia.

Alexander Dugan has a particularly Russian version of history. He says that the 20th century was a titanic struggle among fascism, communism, and liberalism, in which liberalism won out. He thinks that in the 21st century there will be a fourth way. Western liberalism will be replaced by a conservative superstate like Russia leading a multipolar world and defending tradition and conservative values. He predicts that the rise of conservative strongmen in the West will embrace these values. Dugan supports the rise of conservative right-wing groups all across Europe. He has formed relationships with white nationalists’ groups in America. Dugan believes immigration and racial mixing are polluting the Caucasian world. He regards rolling back immigration as one of the key tasks for conservative states. Dugan says that all truth is relative and a question of belief; that freedom and democracy are not universal values but peculiarly Western ones; and that the U.S. must be dislodged as a hyper power through the destabilization of American democracy and the encouragement of American isolationism.

Dugan says that the Russians are better at messaging than anyone, and that they’ve been working on it as a part of conventional warfare since Lenin. So the Russians have been thinking and writing about information war for decades. It is embedded in their military doctrines.

Perhaps one of the best examples of Russia’s prowess at information warfare is Russia Today, (RT). During HM’s working days his job provided the opportunity to view RT over an extensive period of time. What is most remarkable about RT is that it appears to bear no resemblance of information warfare or propaganda. It appears to be as innocuous as CNN. However, after long viewing one realizes that one is being drawn to accept the objectives of Russian information warfare.

Stengel notes that Russian propaganda taps into all the modern cognitive biases that social scientists write about: projection, mirroring, anchoring, confirmation bias. Stengel and his staff put together their own guide to Russian propaganda and disinformation, with examples.

*Accuse your adversary of exactly what you’re doing.
*Plant false flags.
*Use your adversary’s accusations against him.
*Blame America for everything!
*America blames Russia for everything!
*Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Stengel writes that what is interesting about this list is that it also seems to describe Donald Trump’s messaging tactics. He asks whether this is a coincidence, or some kind of mirroring?

Recent events have answered this question. The acceptance of the alternative reality that the Ukraine has a secret server and was the source of the 2016 election interference is Putin’s narrative developed by Russian propaganda. Remember that Putin was once a KGB agent. His ultimate success here is the acceptance of this propaganda by the Republican Party. There is an information war within the US that the US is losing.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.