That's the premise behind "Disinformation" - with award-winning Evergreen host Paul Brandus. Get ready for amazing stories - war, espionage, corruption, elections, and assorted trickery showing how false information is turning our world inside out - and what we can do about it. A co-production of Evergreen and Emergent Risk International.
A House Divided - Political Division & Disinformation's Role
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Americans see each other in increasingly tribalistic terms — one side or the other, and the nation seems, at times, a tinderbox for violence. Adversaries (or perhaps enemies) like Russia, China and others are only too happy to pile on. Featuring John Cohen, former acting under secretary for intelligence and the counterterrorism coordinator, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“We had a big day today, and don't let those cheaters and crooks think anything different.”
That's Kari Lake, who came up short in her bid to become Arizona's governor, but she wasn't going down easily.
“If we have to fight through the BS and the garbage, then we will fight through the BS and the garbage. But how do you get fair and free elections? You have to fight and win to make them fair and free. And we needed another stark reminder that we have incompetent people running the show in Arizona.”
To be fair, there were problems with voting. For example, printers at some polling sites produced ballots with ink that was too light to be read by vote counting machines, which caused ballots to be rejected.
Some voters had to stand in line, vote elsewhere or deposit their ballots in secured boxes that were transferred to downtown Phoenix and counted there.
But an independent analysis shows that all this affected Democratic precincts, just as much as Republican ones and election officials stress, the bottom line is that no one was denied the right to vote.
But to extrapolate such things as Lake did into the broader charge, that the election in the Grand Canyon State was corrupt and neither free nor fair, is a problem unto itself. It can be seen as further alienating citizens and eroding trust in our institutions.
The false baseless charges can be considered disinformation. Much further upstream, all of this is delightful for American adversaries who see their long-term efforts to weaken and divide us continuing to pay dividends.
We'll talk with a security expert about this, a man who has served under four presidents from both parties. I'm Paul Brandus, and that's the name of this series, it's called simply, Disinformation.
And I'm Meredith Wilson, founder and CEO of Emergent Risk International and I'll be providing analysis throughout each episode.
Our guest is John Cohen, former Acting-Under Secretary for Intelligence and the counter-terrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security. As I mentioned, he has served under four presidents from both parties.
Our conversation began with his concerns about how American adversaries are leveraging modern technology and platforms to hurt us.
Disinformation, as you know, goes back to the beginning of time, I suppose, but now we have the internet, we have social media, which are accelerants. They've also lowered the bar, frankly, for anybody who wants to manipulate audio, video, post things online, make things up, spread it easily. Tell me about this dynamic that we're dealing with today.
Yeah, as you just said the use of propaganda, the use of disinformation, the conduct of information warfare is not new. I started my career during the Cold War. I was involved in counter-intelligence operations targeting the KGB and the GRU.
And one of the techniques that they used was the Active measures program where a great amount of resources were developed and used by the Soviet Union, often directed against the U.S., where disinformation or made-up content was spread in the hopes of weakening the U.S.
But as you also pointed out, the internet and the broad use of social media and other internet-based communication platforms has added a new fuel or to some degree steroids to those efforts. So ironically, the playbook that's being used by Russia today is very similar to the playbook that was developed by the Soviet Union.
But today what's different is that Russia and I think one can also argue other countries now, like China and Iran have adopted the Soviet playbook, but are using the internet-based communication platforms that are so prevalent in our lives to engage in information warfare against the United States.
How has disinformation changed the way we conduct our elections?
The information operations employed by countries like Russia have been, from their perspective, incredibly successful in undermining the public's confidence in democratic processes broadly and the election process specifically.
To understand what I mean by that, let's take a step back. Countries like Russia do not interfere with U.S. elections simply because they want to disrupt the election. It's part of a broader strategy employed by the nation state to sow discord in the U.S., to undermine confidence and credibility in democratic institutions, undermine confidence and credibility both domestically and abroad in the U.S. government specifically and to disrupt our relationships with our key allies.
They do this because they're trying to project a stronger geopolitical presence abroad. They're trying to achieve their geopolitical objectives and they're trying to destabilize and weaken the U.S. So, when a country like Russia or China or Iran produces information that they use the internet to spread, in hopes that it will influence how people vote or it will lessen people's confidence in the election process, they're doing it as part of the broader strategy.
Now, placed on top of that is that we are an incredibly polarized and angry nation politically. In the close to 40 years that I've been involved in Homeland Security and Law Enforcement, I've never seen the country this divided.
And what's different is that we tend to view those who disagree with us, whether they're in government or our neighbors as the enemy. And increasingly, we're seeing people who advocate violence as an acceptable way to express one's disagreement with the government or a lack or an election or a disagreement with another's position on public policy issues.
So, it's this combination of anger and violence that not only provides the opportunity for countries like Russia, but makes the outcomes of an information operation so much more dangerous from a threat perspective.
Now, how much of this are we doing to ourselves? The Russians, Chinese, North Korean, so forth and others are obviously major players in this space, but we have a polarized media. We have websites that cater to one side or the other and people tend to … this concept of tribalism where you associate only with those with whom you agree.
And you made a good point, John. Folks who disagree, they're not fellow citizens who simply have a different point of view to be respected. They're the enemy and they must be destroyed. And it's a very dangerous attitude that not just sort of at the corner bar, but in the halls of Congress as well.
I suppose the question is, how much of this have we done to ourselves? Take Russia, China out of it. What are we doing to ourselves here?
That is the key point right there. Information operations are effective, but they're only effective when there are social fractures that can be exacerbated by the entity that's engaging in the information operation.
So, when China and Russia and North Korea and Iran engage in these activities, the first step in the playbook is to study the society, figure out those issues that can be exploited because those are the issues that are exploitable.
And if you look at the United States, it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that the sociopolitical narratives that often make up the content that's promoted online by Russia, Iran, North Korea and China have to do with the government's response to COVID, has to do with the 2020 election, have to do with issues of immigration and race, because they know correctly that those are the most divisive issues in the country today. Those are the issues that are evoking a passionate and emotional response and sometimes even violent responses by those who have strongly held beliefs in those areas.
The Department of Homeland Security, FBI and National Counter-Terrorism Center recently published an intelligence product that looked at ideologically motivated violence in the United States in 2021 and they found that the overwhelming majority of those attacks that were ideologically motivated, were by people who were motivated by one of those three sociopolitical narrative groups that I just described.
So, Russia's success in destabilizing our society is directly related to two factors. One, the speed that they can deliver a message based on current events into the ecosystem. And two, that they're delivering that content into an environment that's highly polarized, highly tribal and quite frankly stoked with anger.
They're just throwing gas on a fire that's already burning.
Exactly, exactly. And while people don't typically like to go here, part of the problem and part of the objective of disinformation operations is to have this content, have these narratives mimicked by mainstream figures.
So, when for political purposes or media purposes, public personalities mimic the same narratives being promoted by these nation states or even terrorists or extremist thought leaders, it adds to the volatility of the threat environment. It validates that message.
And when you have a person out there in our society who is looking for something to justify that individual's use of violence as a way to express their anger, hearing a public figure, whether they're in public office or on the media mimic these narratives, this content, it's very powerful and validating. And that's part of the danger as well.
This series on disinformation is a co-production of Evergreen Podcasts and Emergent Risk International, a global risk advisory firm. Emergent Risk International, we build intelligent solutions that find opportunities in a world of risk.
Shifting gears, I talked with (about two weeks ago), John, a professor at the University of Singapore who studies disinformation in a different way, its effect on actual physical damage to the country, not just hearts and minds. He said that disinformation can actually damage our physical infrastructure. Is that a concept that you are aware of? Tell me about that.
Yeah, absolutely. While you and I have been talking primarily about the use of information operations by hostile foreign powers, we also see these same techniques being used by foreign terrorist groups and domestic violence extremist organizations.
And in much of the content that we see being promoted on those extremist forums, they not only just call for violence generally, but they talk about specific ways in which the violence can be perpetrated.
So, they talk about attacks against elected officials, both Republicans and Democrats by the way. They talk about attacks directed at election officials. They talk about targeting synagogues, churches, mosques, public facilities for violence.
But they also talk about how one could attack electrical infrastructure, telecommunications infrastructure. And they discuss it within the context of trying to create events that will accelerate the coming of a new civil war.
There are what we call accelerationist communities that exist within the United States. Their objective ideologically is to bring down the current government. They identify violent activities as the way to accelerate what they call the coming violent overthrow of the government.
And they will often advocate again, justifying it by the use of some conspiracy theory, advocate acts of destruction or targeted acts of violence directed not only at those groups that I mentioned earlier, but at part of our critical infrastructure.
A recent example is there was a conspiracy theory that the 5G telecommunications infrastructure was actually the underlying cause for COVID. And within these extremist and accelerationist forums, they advocated for vandalism and targeting of the 5G infrastructure in the United States, as well as Europe. And we actually did see acts of vandalism directed in Europe at cell towers and other parts of the infrastructure.
Recently in these same extremist forums, we've seen calls for attacks against the electrical grid. The justification being attack the electrical grid, particularly in the hot days of summer. It'll stress people out and they will become more willing to violently overthrow the government of the United States.
The challenge here for law enforcement is that we have two sort of conflating issues. One, we have an increasing number of people in our society who are angry. They're looking for the justification to use violence as a way to express that anger. They're spending a lot of time online viewing content to find that justification.
And secondarily, we have a online and media ecosystem that is saturated with extremist content, conspiracy theories and other content that's placed there specifically by foreign intelligence services, by foreign terrorist groups, by domestic violent extremist thought leaders who yes, they're seeking to sow discord destabilize our society and undermine credibility in our government, but they're also seeking to inspire violence.
This is terrifying stuff. Everybody knows it's there. But listening to you, this is genuinely the stuff of nightmares. And I keep thinking of something that the IRA terrorists said many years ago when they tried to kill Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister and they nearly did at a hotel I think 1983, 1984, something like that.
And they said, “We only have to be lucky once to do something.” And it seems to me that with all of these nightmarish scenarios you're talking about, the power grid and they only have to be lucky once to really do something, don't they? That's really scary stuff.
Yeah. I would actually argue that the threat has evolved. It's a very different threat than the one we faced on September 11th. But in many respects, the threat we're dealing with today is, as you put it, not only different but scarier than the threat before, because we've spent billions and billions of dollars establishing a counter-terrorism capability that was intended to stop attacks by foreign terrorist groups operating abroad, who worked within an organizational framework, who engaged in certain communication and travel activities. And it was that communication and travel activities that allowed us to identify operatives before they conducted an attack.
Today, the primary terror threat facing United States comes from loan offenders, individuals who feel socially disconnected, they're angry, they spend a significant amount of time online, they ultimately self-connect with a cause or grievance that validates their use of violence.
And from a law enforcement and intelligence perspective, that's a very difficult threat to mitigate. And it's not that it's simply conjecture that this is what we're dealing with. We're in the midst of a threat environment where we are literally dealing with mass casualty attacks in the United States on a day-to-day basis.
And while the motives behind these attacks may vary, that what we have learned is that the behavioral characteristics of these attackers are very similar. And their violent actions are driven by the content they're viewing online.
And as I mentioned before, that content that they are often consuming, that they are connecting with, that they are using as the justification to go into a school or a nightclub or a government building and engage in a mass casualty attack, was put there purposely by others who engaged in violence, foreign intelligence services, terrorist groups or domestic violent extremist thought leaders who are seeking to inspire acts of violence in the U.S. to achieve their ideological objectives. So, it's a very scary environment.
And thus the link between disinformation and potential mass casualty attacks, the link between disinformation and taking down the electric grid. What other parts of the infrastructure, in your view, could be vulnerable?
Telecommunications, banking, electrical, power grids, transportation. We had the-
Yeah. The difference in the threat environment today is that targets are being selected because they're accessible. It doesn't take a lot of operational planning or sophisticated operational activity to take a high-powered rifle and shoot at transformers.
It doesn't take a lot of sophistication to go into the subway and begin shooting people. It doesn't take a lot of sophistication to take your car onto a college campus and start running people over. It doesn't take a lot of sophistication to walk into a school and begin shooting people.
And those are all examples of attacks we've experienced over the last several years. And unless we get a handle on this, we're already seeing the tempo of these attacks are increasing. It shouldn't be a surprise because the polarized nature of our society is becoming more hardened.
But unless we come together as a nation (Republicans and Democrats), and decide that enough is enough, we're going to continue to experience these attacks.
I'll share something. I continued to teach and I met with my class last night and we were discussing this very issue and these are all graduate students, and many of them work in government. And I asked the class, “So, what's the solution?” And one young person raised their hand and said, “There is no solution. This is just where we are as a society.”
And my next question was, “So, what would have to happen? What would have to happen to bring Republicans and Democrats and all parts of our society together? And to decide that we want to change?” That we're going to change our individual behavior regarding how we consume information, we're going to change the dynamics of our political discourse, so that we're not viewing, as you pointed out, those who disagree with us as the enemy.
Where we're going to be able to express our frustration with government programs and policies without calling for the violent overthrow of the government or the storming of the Capitol. Where we can express our fear and concerns about how the government is dealing with the pandemic and how it affects us whether it's on the community level, the family level or the societal level, without believing that the pandemic was a result of some globalist conspiracy intended to displace the white race.
Until we do that and I'm not trying to sound pessimistic, but until we do that, my concern is that we are going to continue to experience one mass casualty attack after mass casualty attack.
I'll be back to break this down with analyst Meredith Wilson right after this.
Welcome back for further analysis. Let's bring in Meredith Wilson. Now, she is the Chief Executive Officer of Emergent Risk International. Meredith, welcome.
We just heard John Cohen, the longtime counter-intelligence official give a pretty gloomy assessment of the security situation. He says, our political discourse is so toxic and divisive that the probability for violence will remain.
He mentioned the lone wolf, the guy sitting at home online all day, being exposed to false information. He says, this is one of our greatest security threats. What's interesting is we had this chat just before this recent infrastructure attack in North Carolina. Your thoughts on all this, please, and I understand you have some data to share.
What happened in North Carolina, this was this last weekend, first weekend of December. Something that popped up on social media, which I know they're still trying to run down was that there were a couple of random comments very shortly before and after that happened, that alluded to that somehow being connected to an LBGTQ event that was happening in the area in Monroe County. It's unclear whether or not that is connected, but there was some indication that it might have been.
But interestingly, that is not by any means the first infrastructure attack we've seen here in the U.S. this year or ever. We've definitely had these before, but what's really interesting is when you pull the Department of Energy statistics, the number of sabotage cyber physical attacks has almost doubled this year from last year. And this is before 2020 even ends and I'm pretty sure that these numbers don't include this most recent one.
But there were 15 total last year and this year there have so far been 25. But that number is exponentially higher than most prior years. This is a phenomenon that we're seeing increase and that we've seen increase over the last couple of years, specifically.
The discussion about the 5G towers specifically, a lot of those initial attacks on 5G towers came right at the front end of COVID. And shortly before that, where there was a bunch of kind of conspiracies going around about COVID being related to 5G towers or that COVID was being created by 5G towers and this was not exclusive to the United States.
This happened in South America. This happened in Europe where groups were going out and disabling 5G towers because they were convinced that it was somehow connected to COVID-19.
So, it's not just conspiracy theories, it's everything from conspiracy theories to groups with grievances about different issues going out and doing this because it is a relatively easy thing to do. You have a gun; you have some kind of tool. Electrical substations are oftentimes not well guarded.
They might have a chain-link fence around them, but there's not much else. You probably wouldn't want to get in there and touch one, but to stand from a distance and fire something at a substation is pretty easy to do. So, it's not all that surprising that it's happening, but it is very worrying.
Looking at all of the other data that you mentioned, is there any common thread about those that we can discern?
I do know and again, Mr. Cohen alluded to this in his discussion that this is something that the FBI and DHS has been watching pretty closely for quite some time, partially because they are seeing such an increase, but also because it's being talked about. It's being chatted about.
You get onto some of the more extreme websites, some of the more extreme rhetoric that comes out from tweets or things like that. It's actually something that's being talked about and chatted about in this sort of groups with more extremist ideas and intentions.
And so, again, I don't think that it's surprising, but I do think that we're probably going to see more of it in the coming months and years.
The other thing about the energy infrastructure, you made a good point, Meredith, is that they're vulnerable because they're largely unguarded substations and things like that. Is that why they're being targeted? What about other infrastructure? Is it harder to take on say other things or just energy is particularly vulnerable and that's what they're choosing?
I think there's probably a number of reasons and I'm certainly not inside of these individuals’ heads, but the electric grid is something that we have been concerned about for years. Whether it's nation, state actors and this is something else we've seen in Ukraine right now, the Russians are attempting to bomb Ukraine back to the stone age, if you will, by taking out all their electrical infrastructure.
So, they have a large number of the attacks that they've mounted just in the last four to five weeks after the bridge in the Kerch Strait was bombed, have been directly targeting the electric grid.
And so, in Kiev, a lot of people don't have power right now. In other parts of non-occupied Ukraine, a lot of people don't have power. It is a high priority target for them because it's winter. And we're moving into a time period where that's really going to be painful for them.
Here in the U.S., there is that, I wouldn't say it's copycat, but people do see what happens overseas and they do see these types of things going on. And they could get ideas from that.
It could be that it may seem to them to be a high impact, low pain sort of scenario where they're not directly hitting anybody. They're not killing anyone. So, they're not doing anything like a mass casualty attack, but they're going to get attention because they're taking out power.
However, the reality is that there is a cost to that and that includes taking out power in hospitals where people are reliant on electricity to breathe. And especially people that are in their homes that are in a situation like that, where they don't necessarily have a generator or something like that.
So, it does actually have a physical impact. But I wonder sometimes that that's not one of the reasons. And the other one again, is that it's easy and if you take out a little power substation that's up in the mountains somewhere and nobody's around, it's a relatively low at least immediate chance that you're going to get
Caught. I did want to ask you also about another big development in recent days, this bizarre incident in Germany. This attempted plot apparently to overthrow the German government, something like two dozen suspected members and supporters of a far-right group, allegedly seeking to overthrow the state and install kind of a weird prince with support from Russia, this kind of thing, with sweeping arrests all across the country.
So, this kind of anti-government stuff, not just here in the United States, of course, but it can happen anywhere. Tell me about that, a very disturbing development.
So, I thought of this as I was listening to Mr. Cohen speaking about extremism and its growth in general. But the arrests in Germany were described in several cases by several media outlets as a U.S. style coup plot.
And I was a little taken aback by that because prior to January 6th of 2021, I would've never thought of that as a U.S. style plot. But suddenly, a lot of the same radicalization that we're seeing here, we're seeing in places like Germany, I shouldn't say suddenly, this has been going on for a long time.
It's coming to the surface now because it's growing and because it's becoming an acute danger to society. And in that particular case, I think what made people think about that as the U.S. style, if you will has to do more with the people who were arrested.
So, some of the people that were arrested, there was a retired or a politician, someone who had previously served in parliament. There were a number of special forces and military folks involved. And what we saw on January 6th was a similar situation where we saw a lot of police firemen and military members or former military members that were involved in this.
And so, I think that's probably where this whole idea of it being similar to what's happening in the U.S. But another thing that I was looking at semi-related to this is hate crime statistics, because there is some linkage between individuals perpetrating certain types of hate crime and this sort of extremism.
And what we've seen both in the U.S. and Germany, is an exponential rise in hate crime. And that is again, not exclusive to the U.S. and Germany, but those seem to be two of the places where this is becoming the most acute at the moment.
And so, you have to kind of ask yourself what is happening within political discourse here? What is happening within online discourse here and in Germany that is contributing to that. And what are the other factors that are driving this similar kind of developments in both of these countries?
Now, in our final moments here since this is a series about disinformation, bring all of that back, this disturbing stuff in Germany, in here, to disinformation. Clearly folks are seeing things online. They're being radicalized, they're banding together with their tribe, it seems clear that there's some sort of correlation between disinformation and this this kind of activity.
What's interesting to me on disinformation is when disinformation becomes real to people. And as several people have said, in talking about January 6th and just kind of the narrative that's formed around it.
But several people have said, these are good people who legitimately thought they were defending their country. And I agree, they legitimately thought they were defending their country. And I don't agree that it was right. I think it was completely wrong.
However, at what point did these people come to believe that what is happening in our government was so bad that overrunning the Capitol building or plotting to overthrow the government was the right decision?
And that's where you start going back and looking at what is the narrative that they are exposed to every day? What are they hearing? What are they seeing on TV? What are they listening to? Who is talking and making it sound like what's happening in our government is so bad that we need to just cancel it completely and start over.
And that's why I think a lot of people go back to radicalization and what's happening online and what's happening in the media. And you hear me say this, and I say this very clearly, what's happening online and what's happening in the media, because a good portion of these people are actually getting a lot of their information from television, from cable news, from places like that, where some of these similar types of narratives have really taken on a whole media program or a whole set of media programs.
And so, it's not just one place that they're getting it, they're not just hanging out in a chat room somewhere and seeing this, some of that is happening there. But some of that is happening on every night when they turn on the television.
So, it's a broader narrative that's coming together that is convincing these people that our lives are so bad here and our government is so bad that we need to do this. And something similar is happening in Germany.
And so, yeah, you have to ask the question, as Mr. Cohen said, how do we fix this? And how are we going to make this better? And it really is a whole of society problem. How do you unwind that? And I wish I had the answer to that.
So, lots of questions, but it seems few answers. Thanks to John Cohen for his insights in this week's episode, our sound designer and engineer, Noah Foutz, audio engineer Nathan Corson, executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando, and on behalf of Meredith Wilson.