Disinformation Campaigns in War and Business

The breathlessness of the Ukraine situation, and the tactics being used by both Russia and the West show the enormous impact of information / disinformation campaigns. Controlling a narrative has become the main front of any modern confrontation.

It’s astounding the number of Russians that actually believe the Ukrainians are committing genocide on their own people. But with Putin controlling the message loudly and consistently, while smothering alternative voices, this strategy works effectively.

Perhaps cynically, I believe that people, perhaps the majority of them, will simply absorb what is published. Say something with breathless repetition and practiced conviction in the media, and people will accept it at face value.

While at a much less importance from a humanitarian scale, these types of tactics are used all the time in cutthroat business confrontations. A lot of us remember the pervasive use of vaporware campaign blitzes by Microsoft in the 1990s (although they weren’t the only company to do this).

See a competitor building a product that is not in your offering stable? Pretend you are far along as well, come up with a splashy name and logo, and set your well greased PR team on overdrive to blitz it in the press. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t even written a line of code.

This information assault intimidates would be investors in your competitor and causes their customers to drop out in order to wait for the Microsoft offering. Employees get demoralized. Potential employees turn down your offer to work at Microsoft instead. Extremely effective.

The obligatory Bitcoin example — private blockchains years ago were blitzed and amplified by the press to such extremis that the accepted conclusions by the elite were astounding. Blockchains would finally secure property rights for Guatemalans who lived in towns controlled by drug lords. Property deeds for my Manhattan apartment would exist on a private blockchain. Title transfers for cars would execute on a smart contract on — you guessed it, a private blockchain. I could go on and on, but I won’t.

But it’s undeniable that in the short and medium term, that information assault worked. Billions were raised, companies focusing “just on” Bitcoin were shunned and thought to be anachronistic and behind the times. Investment capital flowed away from companies that believed in the value of crypto to companies that hated crypto but loved blockchains. So it was successful as an operation, in that sense.

Finally, one last interesting development about information war tactics. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Ukraine situation is the pre-emptive information operations that US intelligence executed to undercut Putin’s plan. By knowing exactly the contours of his plan for what he was about to tell his people (purloined using sensitive methods), they took the unusual step of telegraphing what he was about to say well before he even said it.

This approach cut off his credibility before he could even start, which is a lot more effective and efficient than trying to combat the narrative when it’s already in the wild.

None of this is entirely novel, of course, but what I do think is different is the primacy of information guerrilla warfare in being decisive in the outcome — whether the fight is over land, or over business interests.

Let’s hope the good guys win the information wars.

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