Hacking Hearts and Minds

How Memetic Warfare is Transforming Cyberwar
by Jeff Giesea

Source: OPEN Publications
Click here to access PDF

“One withstands the invasion of armies; One does not withstand the invasion of ideas.” – Victor Hugo

At a recent hearing about information warfare and possible Russian meddling in the U.S. election, the most revealing statement came from Michael Lumpkin, former head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center:

“To date, there is not a single individual in the U.S. government below the president of the United States who is responsible and capable of managing U.S. information dissemination and how we address our adversaries in the information environment.”

To many observers, it has become obvious that Russia, China, and even the Islamic State are out-maneuvering the U.S. and allied governments in their use of information warfare and online propaganda, which I refer to as memetic warfare. What is notable, and damning, is how little we are doing about it.

Information warfare is “a conflict we have largely ignored,” confessed Subcommittee Chairwoman Elise Stefanik at the same hearing. “What remains clear is that the cyber warfare and influence campaigns being waged against our country represent a national security challenge of generational proportions.” She added that the hearing “brought to the fore the need to consider national-level strategies to counter state-sponsored propaganda efforts.”

Some at the hearing supported the idea of recreating a United States Information Agency-type organization to help counter propaganda, an idea that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper floated in January. Others suggested bringing back the Active Measures Working Group, a cross-government team the Reagan administration created to address Soviet propaganda at the end of the Cold War.

At a separate hearing days later, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, delivered a similar message to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The U.S. and NATO need to do more to counter Russia’s propaganda and disinformation activities, he emphasized.

The political will to address cyber-enabled information warfare, it seems, is finally arriving. It is safe to assume we will see greater attention to these issues going forward, hopefully in a manner that rises above the bickering of domestic politics. But will it work? Can the U.S. and allied countries neutralize the threat of foreign online propaganda and gain the upper hand? Can we successfully work through all the legal, bureaucratic, and doctrinal issues involved? How should we even think about this?

In this paper, I’d like to offer memetic warfare as a much-needed paradigm shift to expand our way of thinking of cyberwar, and also as a tactical and operational tool for addressing these issues. To date, cyberwar has focused on hacking computers and networks, overlooking cyber-enabled efforts to influence hearts and minds. It is becoming painfully clear, however, that we cannot talk about cyberwar without including memetic warfare — defined here as information operations and psychological warfare conducted through the Internet and social media. In today’s hyper-connected Information Age, the ultimate battle space is over our beliefs, narratives, and ways of viewing the world — in other words, our memes.

As lawmakers discuss strategies for countering foreign propaganda and building up memetic warfare capabilities, there is a lot to learn from the online trolling community. This paper offers some of these lessons. It concludes with several practical recommendations. Click here to read more.