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How the West is starting to win the disinformation war

In the run up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. declassified an unprecedent amount of intelligence regarding how Putin was going to justify his actions. While Putin was saying that the buildup of troops was just an exercise, the U.S. revealed that blood supplies were being moved up to basing areas; a key indicator that Russia expected to take casualties. Before Putin could even begin his ‘false flag’ operations, the U.S. revealed that these were a pretext for invasion. The U.K. got in on the act as well, releasing intelligence that Russia planned to install a pro-Moscow government in Kiev. Unfortunately, this intelligence was largely ignored – and even ridiculed by the Ukrainian government – with many Europeans believing that invasion was not Putin’s planned course of action. As we now know, the intelligence was remarkably accurate. 

Despite this, the releasing of intelligence that preempted Russia’s actions had a significant effect in undermining the narrative that Putin planned on building; that of a belligerent NATO, an aggressive Ukrainian government, and a people who needed saving. Ever since Putin has been struggling to control the narrative around the invasion. Claims made that Ukraine was close to building a ‘dirty bomb’, and that it was planning an offensive operation against the Donbass seem like a regime scrabbling to retrospectively legitimise its actions, and failing. 

NATO and the West has struggled to control disinformation, particularly when it’s emanated from Russia. Putin was able to dictate the narrative around his use of ‘little green men’ in Crimea in 2014 and exploit US political divisions to cover his interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections. However, the use of classified intelligence to ‘prebunk’ Russian disinformation in Ukraine demonstrates a tool that the West and NATO can exploit to get ahead in the disinformation fight. But for this to be effective it will not only require the sharing of intelligence with the public to become more widespread, but a change in how intelligence agencies operate.

‘I’m sorry, that’s classified’ 

Intelligence agencies have traditionally been highly averse to sharing intelligence. The principle of ‘need to know’ is sacrosanct, and even in my experience the over classification of intelligence is common practice. This is done, understandably, in the name of source security, be it human or technical, with agencies not wanting to risk an adversary learning of its assets or capabilities. I have no doubt that the release of intelligence related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine horrified some members of the intelligence community, however when it came to Russian disinformation in Ukraine, the public was very much ‘need to know’. 

To allow intelligence to continue to be used to counter disinformation agencies need to be more comfortable with sharing their intelligence, because as Ukraine showed, sharing intelligence with the public can have a strategic effect and help counter disinformation. This is not to say source security isn’t important, but in an age where open-source intelligence is so pervasive the ability to obfuscate the origins of classified intelligence is improving. 

However, just releasing the intelligence to the public isn’t enough, it needs to be believed. When intelligence is made public often no evidence is provided to back up what is said. This is understandable as to do so would almost certainly reveal the source of the information. But if the public are to believe what they are told without being presented any evidence, they need to have trust in the organisations providing the information. This is even more important when you are trying to counter disinformation.

That the intelligence on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine wasn’t initially accepted was likely, at least in part, down to a lack of trust. From information about Iraq’s WMD programme, leaks by Edward Snowden, and the perceived failure to predict the fall of Kabul, the intelligence community has seen many incidents that have eroded public confidence in its work. MI5 ‘spies’ doing interviews on TV may seem like a gimmick, but it helps break down the barriers between intelligence agencies and the public; it helps foster trust between the intelligence community and those people it serves. Not only will this make the public more likely to trust intelligence that is presented to them – and in turn not believe an adversary’s disinformation – but it will help protect that trust when mistakes are made. The more open an organization, the less it can be criticised for not being accountable. 

Not only will being more open about the work of intelligence agencies help build trust with the public but it also serves as an opportunity for education. In Amy Zegart’s book ‘Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence’ she shows that the U.S. publics view on intelligence is overwhelmingly influenced by its portrayal in movies and TV shows. A public with a better understanding of how intelligence works is more likely to both accept information provided by intelligence agencies and be less susceptible to disinformation.  

This was the easy part

Whilst the timely release of intelligence significantly helped undermine Putin’s disinformation campaign, it is likely Russia would have struggled to control the narrative around the invasion regardless. Unlike during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election or Brexit where partisan differences hampered efforts to counter Russian disinformation, there was almost universal condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine from the public. Despite the Obama administration being criticised for not revealing the extent of Russian interference earlier, it is likely it would have made little difference. The public did not believe the intelligence or trust its source. 

The use of intelligence to ‘prebunk’ disinformation can be powerful, but for it to be successful in tackling more divisive issues such as election interference it must be combined with more transparent intelligence practices. 

Capt Tom

Tom is an officer in the Intelligence Corps with almost a decade’s experience. He has worked from the tactical to the strategic, across multiple intelligence disciplines, and with a range of partners.

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